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Henry Darger died with no will, no durable power of attorney, and no revocable trust. In normal circumstances, this would be a family disaster but not a subject of national interest. Darger, it would turn out, was not the simple person he appeared to be, however.
Born in 1892, Darger made his way in the world as a custodian at a Chicago hospital. A year before his death in 1973 he moved to a nursing home and it was only then that his landlords discovered hundreds of watercolor paintings, pencil drawings, and works of collage crammed into his apartment. The body of work depicted Darger’s struggles with a traumatic childhood and when later discovered by critics, would be proclaimed as the most significant discovery of outside art in the twentieth century.
Darger was a genius who lived shuttered away from the world. His masterwork bears a title almost as complicated as his turbulent early years. 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 is a 15,000 page illustrated novel that describes a war between the innocent children of Abbieannia and the aggressing adults of Gladelinia. Aided by Captain Henry Darger, the Vivian sisters try to rescue those threatened by the adult troops. Critics read the work as an attempt by Darger to reclaim his innocence.
Darger’s mother died when he was four and when he was eight his father placed him in an orphanage. Four years later Darger was transferred to the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children and at 17 he escaped and retreated into a hermitic life which he retained until passing away at the age of 81.
After his death, Darger’s landlords Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner sought to preserve his creative legacy. With the help of photograph collector Ruth Horwich, they arranged an exhibition of his work at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1977. At first, reception of his unique style was slow but then, in 2001, when Darger was featured in the “Disasters of War” show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the wider art world finally took notice.
Presently, a Darger painting sells for as much as $800,000. Up until Nathan Lerner’s passing in 1997, he and Kiyoko managed custodial duties of their former tenant’s work together. Today, Kiyoko handles this task on her own but that may soon change.
In January 2022 distant relatives of Darger tracked down by a vintage photography collector filed a “petition for determination of heirship” in an Illinois probate court. Their purported aim, according to Christen Sadowski, a cousin many times removed, is to assert “the rights of the family” and take “any and all action to restore [Darger’s] legacy.” Some in the art world, however, have characterized their motivations as greedy and insisted that were it not for the Lerner’s care, Darger’s genius would never have come to light.
Had the Lerner’s acted quickly and instituted a little planning for the future when they discovered their tenant’s incredible talent a year before his death, a court battle could have been avoided. A simple will or trust arrangement could have secured their claim to Darger’s estate and rendered null any challenge from distant relatives.
While Darger’s genius makes his case exceptional, the legal paperwork that would have simplified claims to his work is far from difficult. With the help of an experienced estate planning attorney, planning for the future need not be complex. A durable power of attorney and revocable trust are simple documents that require little more than basic foresight.
To learn more about avoiding catastrophe in your family and ensuring your loved ones face no legal strife when you pass, do not hesitate to reach out to the Law Firm of Christopher W. Dumm either by calling 417-623-2062 or using the contact form on our website
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