As described in the Museum of Modern Art’s [MoMA] description of artists, “In 1972, the retired custodian Henry Darger left his rented room in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago to move to a nursing home. The room had been his home for over four decades, and in it he left behind a trove that astonished his landlord: it included a six-volume weather journal, a 5,000-page autobiography, a 15,000-page novel, and several hundred drawings, paintings, and collages. Darger, his biographers believe, had never shown these works to anyone.”
Upon Darger’s death in 1973, his landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Learner, entered his Wicker Park apartment and discovered the artwork. They then “worked with the Hyde Park Art Center to mount Darger’s first exhibition in 1977. Over the years, he gradually rose to art-world fame, with his posthumous inclusion in institutions from the Museum of Modern Art to the American Folk Art Museum.” The Learners also operate a website devoted to Darger’s art.
But what rights do the Learners, as landlords, really have over their deceased tenant’s creative works? As reported by the Chicago Tribune, several of Darger’s first cousins several times removed filed an action in U.S. District Court on July 27, 2022 alleging that the Lerners “illegally profiting from Darger’s works for nearly five decades . . . despite having no claim as heirs” and “have generated tens of hundreds of millions of dollars from the unauthorized exploitation of the Darger works.” The first cousins have also filed an action in Cook County Probate Court seeking to be recognized as the heirs to Darger’s estate.
The first cousins may not be able to prove that they are proper beneficiaries of Darger’s works. To the contrary, the Lerners “have long claimed that . . . Darger was willing to give them all the work. . . . Nathan Lerner asked if Darger wanted anything hidden from his room after he moved out. ‘I don’t need anything in the room. It’s all yours. You can throw it all away,’ Darger reportedly said.” Darger was unmarried, had no children, and was “an eccentric lone wolf.”
This fascinating case will likely take a considerable amount of time and effort to resolve. In the meantime, what practical lessons can be learned from the Darger case? One important lesson is that when you know that a family member or close friend has died but no one seems to be taking any action, perhaps you should be the one to step up and assist? If so, then you will need to ensure that you have the legal authority to enter a deceased person’s apartment. Then you can take charge of the situation rather than making a landlord eventually clean out the apartment to re-let it. As Darger demonstrates, leaving the clean-out duties to the landlord is likely not a wise course of action. You should either do that work yourself or, alternatively, contact a reputable and experienced company that can assist in creating an inventory of the decedent’s possessions and in moving or disposing of various assets per your instructions. Because who knows what hidden treasures may potentially be discovered?
If you need assistance in this process, please let us know. We’d be happy to help.
This post is for informational purposes and does not contain or convey legal advice. The information herein should not be used or relied upon in regard to any particular facts or circumstances without first consulting with an attorney.