When David Killen, a New York gallerist and auctioneer, got a cold call in 2016 from a schoolteacher offering to sell him a storage unit filled with art, he almost turned it down. A large auction house had already passed on it, and the contents seemed mostly unremarkable. A will executor had tried and failed to return the works to their original owners, and after no such luck, offered the contents to auctioneers. It was likely filled with junk, Killen thought, but at least the works could be used as filler lots for his biweekly auctions, so he offered $15,000 for the contents of the unit and didn’t think much of it. But then, as he was loading the boxes into his truck, the impossible happened. Something so unbelievably rare, and truly life-changing, that would make for a riveting episode of Storage Wars: he stumbled upon six paintings by the Dutch Abstract Expressionist artist Willem de Kooning.
It was a sheer amount of dumb luck to come across the works, though it wasn’t entirely surprising. The storage unit had once belonged to mega-restorer Orrin Riley, who founded the conservation department at the Guggenheim Museum before setting up his own practice. When he died in 1986, he left everything to his wife, Susanne Schnitzer, including all of the works he had been restoring. When Schnitzer died in 2009, a group of her friends tried to return the paintings but were left with 200 or so still unclaimed. They consulted the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, who advised the group that since no one had come forward to claim ownership, they were free to do what they pleased with the paintings – including sell them. But with no ties to the art world, and no real interest in keeping the paintings, they called up a couple of auction houses in the area to propose a sale, eventually striking a deal with Killen. As the gallerist loaded the works into the back of his truck, he noticed that there was a box labeled “de Kooning pulloffs,” which contained six paintings of various sizes, all unsigned. “What are the odds of finding a de Kooning in a storage unit?” Killen says to AD. “It’s unheard of!” (Though last summer, a stolen de Kooning was found hanging inconspicuously in an elderly couple’s bedroom in New Mexico).
Lawrence Castagna and David Killen admire one of the de Koonings.