Storage Wars, Big Boys Version: A Locker Full of Modern Masterpieces

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.




Thought-Pourri: Artists In Action Edition

With apologies for no post on Mardi Gras – the day itself was rather fat with things that needed my attention – we return today with a curated selection of stories from the art world, since you don’t have to fast or abstain today.

Damien Hirst: Creating Canvases

While I derided him and his work for a long time, unlike a number of others who shall not be named from the Saatchi stable of regrettable British art, I find that Damien Hirst is becoming more interesting as he ages. Perhaps best known for putting dead animals in display cases filled with formaldehyde, in more recent years Hirst has been moving in interesting directions, even as the art press seems to like the results less and less. As famous these days for his bombastic personal statements as for his art, Hirst seems to be developing a new outlook on life, whether due to his becoming a father, or accepting middle age, or simply realizing that the legacy of his art matters; many observers have commented that even his Instagram account has become, dare one say it, more introspective.

I began rethinking my views on Hirst’s work back in 2013 with his monumental – and stunningly pro-life – sculpture installation “The Miraculous Journey”, a series of 14 monumental bronzes of a human baby at all stages of development in the womb, created for the grounds of a hospital in Doha. Then there was his fascinating but critically-panned “The Wreck of the Unbelievable” at last year’s Venice Biennale, centered around an entirely made-up story of finds from a shipwreck, which supposedly contained works of art from all over the ancient world. His latest exhibition, “The Veil Paintings”, which opens at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles on March 1st, features large, beautifully colored canvases inspired in part by the Pointillist period of Post-Impressionism, and also by the later Abstract Expressionist movement, albeit in a more cheerful, sunny way than the latter. Hirst being Hirst, he still creates works in the kind of bad taste that made him infamous, but alongside these more pedestrian pieces there seems to be a new seriousness in his work which, quite frankly, would serve his legacy far better.


Antonio Banderas: Playing Picasso

Being perhaps the second most famous person to hail from the Spanish city of Málaga, it was probably inevitable that, at some point in his life, actor Antonio Banderas would be asked to play that city’s most famous native son, artist Pablo Picasso. Now, Banderas will be portraying his fellow Andalusian in not one, but two upcoming productions. For American audiences, Banderas will be seen as the older Picasso in season 2 of Director Ron Howard’s “Genius” on the National Geographic Channel, which begins airing on April 24th; you can check out the trailer here. International audiences will be awaiting the long-delayed “Picasso y Guernica” by Spain’s greatest living film director, Carlos Saura, which focuses on the creation of the most famous painting of the 20th century, and the rocky relationship between the artist and his then-muse, Dora Maar, who photographed Picasso’s work on the monumental canvas as it developed. No confirmation yet on who will be playing Maar, or Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was Picasso’s mistress at the time he began work on Guernica (and whom he left for Maar), but current rumors are that Marion Cotillard will be playing the former and Gwyneth Paltrow will be playing the latter. (Readers may not be aware that Paltrow is not only fluent in proper Castilian Spanish, but owns a home there; in fact, a colleague of mine ran into her on a plane to Barcelona not too long ago.)


Leonardo Da Vinci: Discovering Drawings

With the buildup to the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death next year, you’ll be seeing all kinds of exhibitions related to the Florentine artist opening around the globe; the latest to be announced is “Leonardo Da Vinci: A Life in Drawing”, featuring works from the British Royal Collection. What is particularly interesting, from a technology perspective, is that in preparation for the show, a number of these drawings have been examined using methods such as infared light and high-energy x-rays to reveal previously unseen sketches from the master. The studies of hands shown below, for example, were photographed under ultraviolet light, to reveal drawings that can no longer be seen with the naked eye, because of the fading of the materials with which they were created. Much as I don’t personally care for Leonardo’s work, his hands really are a thing of beauty, and perhaps no artist other than Raphael ever paid such close attention to the careful study of the possibilities afforded for gestures in the human hand.