Hearing on Henry Darger Estate Dispute Is Postponed

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A hearing to help determine who has the rights to the estate of the janitor-turned-artist Henry Darger was postponed on Wednesday for procedural reasons in an Illinois probate court.

Distant relatives of Darger, an outsider artist who died in 1973, had filed a petition seeking control of the estate after being alerted to their potential rights by a vintage photography collector.

The artist’s former landlord in Chicago, Kiyoko Lerner, who has managed the care and sale of Darger’s work for decades both by herself and with her husband, Nathan, before his death, had filed a motion to strike the family members’ petitions, questioning their credibility and arguing that they did not comply with state law and had not established that the relatives were legal heirs.

“The sole basis for asserting that Petitioner is an heir is based upon a report by a third party,” Lerner argued in court papers, “for which Lerner is entitled to a hearing on the merits in order to ascertain if this report is credible and may be relied upon by this Court.”

Lerner also said she had not been notified of the family’s claim, which is being led by Christen Sadowski, a Darger relative, but instead learned about it after a query from The New York Times.

The probate judge Kent A. Delgado on Wednesday said there were “lots of holes” in the family’s court documents and that he needed to review Sadowski’s standing as an heir. He rescheduled the hearing for May 24.

“At this moment,” he told the family’s lawyers, “I don’t believe your client has standing in order to find that she’s an heir.”

When Darger died, he left a single room crammed with his colorful illustrations, a 15,000-page book and no immediate surviving relatives. In court papers, Lerner asserted that Darger was an “unkempt” loner who “gave all of his belongings to my late husband, Nathan Lerner, before he passed away.”

The Lerners went on to loan and sell Darger’s pieces to museums, galleries and collectors, which established Darger as a leading outsider, or untrained, artist. His work has sold privately for as much as $800,000 and for a high of $745,076 at auction.

Most significant was Darger’s 15,000-page illustrated novel with a lengthy title, which has been taken apart with pieces sold separately.

The novel — “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion” — describes an epic war between the innocent children of Abbieannia and the violent adults of Glandelinia.

The Darger relatives — most of them first cousins twice or three times removed — were recently tracked down by Ron Slattery, who also helped discover the work of Vivian Maier, a nanny and street photographer whose estate was similarly disputed by family members and has yet to be settled.

With the help of HeirSearch, a forensic genealogy research company, the family members identified Darger descendants who are named in the probate papers. Christen Sadowski, a Darger relative who is the point person for the family, has said that their claim is “about righting a wrong.”

The dispute highlights the thorny territory of how to handle legacies and copyrights after the death of largely unknown artists. Regarding the Darger material, a 2019 article in a Northwestern University law journal questioned whether, under Illinois and federal law, the landlords were correct in assuming the rights.

James Brett, the founder of the traveling Museum of Everything, perhaps the most extensive, consistent exhibitor of Darger’s work, said in an email that he was pleased to see the Darger estate under review.

“I know the artist’s work well,” Brett wrote, “and have long felt that neither the copyright held by the landlord’s family, nor their general approach, was appropriate.”

But others argue that, were it not for the Lerners, Darger’s work would never have been recognized. Michael Bonesteel, the editor of “Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings,” published by Rizzoli in 2000, has said that “Kiyoko and Nathan have done great work,” and that “they deserve to make money because they made the effort to preserve it for posterity.”

Robert Chiarito contributed reporting from Chicago.

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