For nearly a decade now, one of the most popular television programs on U.S. basic cable has been A&E’s “Storage Wars”, which chronicles the adventures of buyers who bid on the contents of abandoned storage lockers at auction. The buyers never know for certain quite what they’re getting, and they gamble on some of the individual contents being worth more than what they paid for the contents as a whole. Yet while the current record valuation for the show is about $300,000, an art dealer in New York who himself recently purchased the contents of an abandoned storage locker may have just topped that figure – by many, many times that amount.
David Killen of David Killen Gallery in Chelsea, which sells art, antiques, jewelry, and other items at bimonthly auction, recently paid $15,000 for the contents of a storage locker owned by the late art restorer Susanne Schnitzer. At the time of her death, Ms. Schnitzer had hundreds of works in her possession, many of which had been sent to the business which she co-owned with another late art restorer well-known to the New York museum world. The executors of Ms. Schnitzer’s estate tried for years to track down the owners of these works, but in the end there were over 200 pieces which couldn’t be reunited with their original owners, thus becoming abandoned property.
You may know from personal experience that service providers such as cobblers, dry cleaners, and upholsterers often find themselves with items which their owners never return to pick up. As bizarre as it may seem, given the value of some of the pieces in question, the same thing happens in the world of fine art. People with large art collections who don’t keep an updated catalogue of their holdings sometimes forget what they’ve done with a piece, or circumstances prevent them from paying for the return of their property after the work has been done. Thus, after a reasonable period of time has passed, art conservators, restorers, and framers often end up owning these pieces, thereby amassing substantial art collections of their own.
Mr. Killen was not the first buyer approached by the executors of the Schnitzer Estate to help them clean out the storage locker in New Jersey where the art was being held, but it turns out that he may have been the wisest. After several major auction houses passed on the collection, Mr. Killen purchased the lot for $15,000, and went out to haul his new hoard back to Chelsea. He describes the bulk of what he saw as “junk”, but as the pieces were being loaded onto his truck, he started to come across several large crates which bore the name “de Kooning” on them. It appears that Mr. Killen may now be the very fortunate owner of a total of six paintings by one of the most important of all Modern artists, thanks to his storage locker buy.
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) was one of the most famous artists of the 20th century. He’s mentioned in the same breath as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and others of the so-called “New York School”, who defined the genre known as “Abstract Expressionism”: this was the most dominant school in American painting after World War II, but before the rise of Pop Art in the late 1950’s. Unlike Pollock, Rothko, or Motherwell, I’ve always found de Kooning’s work more appealing and less repetitive than his contemporaries. The aforementioned painters tend to let black dominate their works, and generally ignore anything figurative, while de Kooning often uses a bright palette of shifting colors, and refers heavily to the figurative in certain periods of his career.
As you might expect, de Kooning’s work is extremely valuable. The painting shown in the image that accompanies this article, “Untitled XXV” (1977), was sold at Christie’s in New York back in 2016 for $66.3 million, which to date is the record auction price for the artist. It dates from a later period in his career, but is a good example of the sort of color palette that makes de Kooning one of the more likeable Abstract Expressionists, at least for those of us who prefer not to be depressed all of the time.
However this isn’t the highest price ever paid for a de Kooning – not by a long shot. In fact, until the sale of Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” this past December, the highest known price ever paid for a work of art was for de Kooning’s “Interchange” (1955), a painting with a remarkable history to it, which was sold by entertainment guru David Geffen to hedge fund guru Kenneth C. Griffin for a whopping $300 million back in 2015. Now to be honest, I find such prices to be utterly ridiculous, but since it isn’t my money I don’t particularly care, other than for anecdotal or art market purposes: more fool, they. But I share them here to give you some idea of what was sitting in that humble New Jersey storage facility all of this time, unbeknownst to anyone.
I wouldn’t expect each of the six de Koonings, if fully authenticated, to be worth $66 million, of course, let alone $300 million. On the other hand, every major art collector and museum in the world wants to own a de Kooning, so who’s to say what they would ultimately sell for? Given their potential value, I’m sure Mr. Killen’s insurance carrier is going to be rather nervous unless and until he sells them.