Published: October 15, 2018
Review and Photos by Greg Smith
NEW YORK CITY — The stories poured out of media outlets in July: New York auctioneer David Killen found six unsigned paintings from abstract expressionist master Willem de Kooning in a storage locker. He paid $15,000 for the lot. By the auctioneer’s count, there had been more than 100 stories published, starting with the New York Post, then on ABC and The Guardian, and when AP wrote about it, the international media ran with the story to Japan, Istanbul, Cairo and more.
The story goes that the storage locker contained the remnants of famed New York conservator Orrin Riley’s conservation studio. Riley was well-known in art circles and founded the conservation department at the Guggenheim Museum. When Riley died in 1986, his studio and its contents turned over to his wife, Susanne Schnitzer. When she passed away in 2009 in a motor vehicle accident, efforts were made to return everything possible from the studio’s records, but some 200 works remained. Following a long period of due diligence, the New York Attorney General’s office declared the contents abandoned, releasing the estate from its obligations and giving them carte blanche to do as they wished. They offered it to a New York auction house, who declined and deferred to Killen, who said yes and offered $15,000. He assumed he could pad his regular sales with the art and make out on top.
While loading the contents into his truck, the auctioneer found a box labeled “de Kooning pulloffs,” which contained six paintings of various sizes, all unsigned. The saga began.
“It’s been a process, no question,” Killen said on the two-year journey that brought these works to sale. “I think, in some ways, there has been a psychological exhaustion; there were a lot of dangling questions and entanglements. There were people questioning the provenance. While Orrin Riley was a superstar in the conservation world, nobody outside of his world had heard of him. You’d have to have a Picasso painting that needed repair to even hear his name.”
Killen reached out to Lawrence Castagna, an art conservator in East Hampton, N.Y., who had a unique employment history, having worked as a studio assistant for de Kooning and his wife before working for Orrin Riley. As the de Kooning Foundation does not authenticate works, Castagna was a healthy step towards building expert and collector consensus. And from the moment Casatagna saw Killen’s de Koonings, he believed they were real.
“When I first looked at the stack, I could just see a corner of one piece on the top,” Castagna said, recounting his first experience with the works. “It was a gut feeling of the situation. The type of paper and the way the paint was applied. In my opinion, it was real. As I continued to help David with the process, I became more convinced. I knew the tools that he used and his brushwork. People can try to duplicate it, but it’s like a handwriting signature. It becomes very inherent.”
As the story broke and a combination of healthy skepticism and excitement began to build, the public was left to wait for October 14, when the first two of the six de Koonings, plus a Paul Klee from the same locker, were set to sell.
About 60 people filled the room in David Killen’s gallery, most of them bidding on one of the other 200 lots in the sale. An hour in, the first Willem de Kooning painting, an abstract oil on newspaper, 22½ by 29 inches, made its way to the block.
Killen paused for a moment with the painting under his arm, like an old friend, as he began talking about the story that had swept the world over.
Bidding began at $16,000 for the work before a number of phone bidders pitched in, ultimately pushing the piece to $72,000. There was hope yet.
Following up was Paul Klee’s “Vorhang 129 (or Curtain no. 1),” a work that had a known history. The 9-7/8-by-13¾-inch painting is in the artist’s catalogue raisonné and was from a series where Klee painted on a large piece of linen and then cut it into five pieces. The Guggenheim Museum owns the third from the series. The last known owner of Killen’s Klee was Serge Sabarsky, one of the two founders of the Neue Gallerie. In 1990, Christie’s in London auctioned the exact work with a $400/572,000 estimate, where it failed to sell. At some point after this, and the probable reason it wound up with Orrin Riley, was that ink had spilled across the surface of the work, rendering a large blot. Killen’s catalog description said, “David Killen Gallery conducted tests that show the ink is water soluble, but the likelihood of getting all the ink out is remote.” Still, bidders vied for the work, which went on to $31,200, setting the stage for the finale, the largest de Kooning on offer.
Employees from the gallery moved the crowd aside and took the 65-by-43-inch de Kooning painting on vellum-like-paper off the wall. Killen watched with anticipation as it approached the counter where he had been calling the entire auction. He joked, “I have $75 into each of these, so please go slow. I’m trying to make a little profit.”
Before he got underway, Killen noted that it was brought to his attention during preview that the painting may have been hung incorrectly and that an abstract figure can be seen when hung vertically. “You can hang it anyway you want, so long as you pay for it,” he said.
And then the bidding started at $22,000. An in-house bidder dropped out in the $300,000s, the same time the crowd started cheering in the room. The internet was in until $750,000, when Killen raised both fists into the air in triumph, and the phone bidders carried it to a final price of $1,200,000 as the gallery erupted in applause.
“I thought when the room erupted, it was like a Hollywood movie,” Killen said.
The paintings were bought by collectors and dealers alike, according to Killen. They will likely stay in the Northeast.
Killen was pleased with the results. “It’s exactly what I hoped for. It’s both a relief and elation,” he said. “It has been a long process: from authentication to preparing and exhibiting the works — and then the publicity and the auction. It’s a long time coming.”
“I was hoping it would hit $500,000,” he continued. “It was a shock that it hit $1 million. I attribute it to the allure of the story. It’s a wonderful story that people fell in love with. The treasure hunter story excites everyone; it can happen to anybody. There are people that want to put a painting on their wall and say, ‘that’s the one from that discovery.’”
Killen’s saga is not over.
The auctioneer has four more de Kooning paintings, two slated for sale November 11 and the last two on December 9. Killen has two large-scale works comparable to the $1.2 million piece that he just sold as well as another newspaper work and a painting on vellum.
“They’ve proved themselves,” Killen said. “Whether or not they continue, we’ll see. We’re happy to ride whatever wave rises up from the ocean.”
All prices reported include buyer’s premium. For information, 646-590-2788 or www.davidkillengallery.com.
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