Federal lawsuit filed in case of reclusive North Side artist whose work became world famous

The suit claims Kiyoko Lerner has no legal right to the work or the copyright of “outsider” artist Henry Darger, who died in 1973.

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A re-creation of the one-room apartment of reclusive artist Henry Darger at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, at 756 N. Milwaukee Ave. But just who owns the late artist’s work? A judge or jury may have to decide.

A re-creation of the one-room apartment of reclusive artist Henry Darger at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

AP file

The work of Chicago “outsider” artist Henry Darger has been displayed in galleries and museums across the globe and has generated millions of dollars at auction.

But Kiyoko Lerner and her late husband, Nathan Lerner, had no legal right to possess the reclusive artist’s watercolor paintings, sketches and extensive writings after he died in 1973, according to a federal lawsuit filed last week.

The suit says Kiyoko Lerner, who was at one time Darger’s landlord in Lincoln Park, doesn’t legally own any of the artist’s work or the copyright to it.

The suit also accuses Lerner of “anticybersquatting” by having a website titled “officialhenrydarger.com.” The site offers information about Darger’s life and his work, as well as a warning that “images may not be reproduced, copied, transmitted or manipulated without written permission of Kiyoko Lerner.”

The suit comes on the heels of a filing in Cook Circuit Court earlier this year that seeks to determine Darger’s heirs. One of those would-be heirs, Christen Sadowski, who lives in Clarendon Hills, was in May appointed as the administrator of the Darger estate. That case is ongoing.

Darger as an artist was unknown during his lifetime. For about 40 years, he lived in a one-bedroom apartment on West Webster Avenue. He was an eccentric loner. From time to time, neighbors on the stairs outside his apartment might hear raised voices — voices that sounded as though Darger had invented guests or companions.

It wasn’t until 1972, after Darger had moved out, that a secret life was revealed, in a room cluttered with dozens of pairs of broken eyeglasses, hundreds of his own watercolors, collage paintings and, in a trunk, a 15,000-page typed fantasy novel titled “In the Realms of the Unreal.”

The Lerners have long claimed that Darger willingly gave them all of his work when, as he became increasingly frail, he moved out of the apartment he rented from them and into a nursing home. He died in 1973, at age 81, and was buried in a pauper’s grave. He never married and had no children.

Nathan Lerner asked Darger after he’d moved out if he wanted to keep anything from his room.

“I have nothing I need in the room. It is all yours. You can throw everything away,” Darger reportedly said.

The Lerners took possession of the work. Darger has since become one of America’s greatest outsider artists. Much of his work is housed at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. The Art Institute of Chicago has some pieces. One Darger piece sold at auction for about $680,000.

The federal lawsuit seeks, among other things, to give the estate sole ownership of the copyright of Darger’s works and the return to the estate of those works. The suit is also seeking any profits from the sale of the art and a list, from Lerner, of all of the Darger artwork in her possession.

Lerner could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Eric Kalnins, said Monday he had not yet had a chance to review the lawsuit with his client. Sadowski also could not be reached for comment.

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