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.

DeKooning

 

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Thought-Pourri: Shivering Spring Edition

In theory, I’m heading up to Newark, New Jersey on Saturday, to review the new exhibition “The Rockies & The Alps: Bierstadt, Calame, and the Romance of the Mountains”, which just opened at the Newark Museum. I say, “in theory”, because the weather forecast is still a bit iffy at the moment, calling for anywhere from a bit of sleet to up to 6 inches along the NE corridor. Being a creative sort, if I decide to err on the side of caution and stay home, I can still manage to write a piece about the show, even if I can’t get up there in person. Pity the poor cherry trees and spring bulbs here in the capital, as they are going to take a serious beating, whatever happens.

Now, on to some news.

Van Veen’s Venus

ArtNet has a great story about the discovery of a lost painting by the Dutch Old Master painter Otto Van Veen (c.1556-1629), which was found in the closet of a cultural center in Des Moines, Iowa. I’ll leave you to read the story about that picture, but use it as an excuse to explain that Van Veen is perhaps best known as being the teacher of the great Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), although during his lifetime he was a highly successful and talented painter in his own right. One of my favorite Van Veen paintings is his portrait of the wonderfully-named Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), a close friend and patron of Rubens who was a lawyer, politician, courtier, art collector, and philanthropist. He spent a significant amount of his personal fortune caring for the poor during his lifetime, as well as leaving an enormous legacy after his death. This particular portrait of Rockox hangs in the Rubenshuis, Rubens’ luxurious home and art studio in downtown Antwerp, which is now a museum.

Van Veen

Fixing The Frick

The Frick Collection is possibly my favorite museum in New York, thanks to its seriously impressive art collection, a beautiful building – the former Gilded Age mansion of industrialist Henry Clay Frick – and the fact that it’s never jammed in the way that The Met usually is on a weekend. Now, after many years of fits and starts in trying to expand the public footprint of the museum, the Frick has announced that it will soon begin construction which will increase the gallery space by 30%, and open the second floor of the mansion to the general public for the first time. The designs for the expansion, by the firm of architect Annabelle Selldorf, look suitably restrained, and preserve the overall look of the Frick rather than trying to overwhelm it with add-ons: I particularly like this aspect. Additional renovations will include a 220-seat underground auditorium, conservation laboratories, and – hopefully – new facilities, since when I was there two weeks ago I was reminded of the boy’s bathroom at my Catholic grade school, which was built in 1926. Construction at the Frick is slated to begin in 2020.

Frick

Pleasures Of Portugal

Finally, regular readers are familiar with my dear friend Diana von Glahn, a filmmaker and presenter specializing in documentary series about religious pilgrimages, several of which have aired on channels such as EWTN, Catholic TV, and Salt & Light. On April 28th, should you find yourself in the Philadelphia area you’ll have the chance to meet her, as well as sample Portuguese wines, and support production of her latest work, “The Faithful Traveler in Portugal”; a trailer for the new series appears below. Diana takes us to Lisbon, Porto, and Coimbra, among many other sites in Portugal, a country with a rich religious and cultural history, and if you’ve ever seen one of her films, you know that Diana not only provides viewers with far more information than you would get on your average Travel Channel show, but she does so with warmth, humor, and enthusiasm.

“Wines & Shrines of Portugal” will take place at Holy Martyrs Catholic Church in Oreland, PA on Saturday, April 28th from 6:00-9:00 pm, and tickets cost $50 per person. Space is limited, so to reserve your seat or request additional information, you can contact Holy Martyrs at (215) 884-8575, or email them at holymartyrssecretary@gmail.com

Thought-Pourri: Get Back Into It Edition

Although I’ve been back from Spain – and England, unintentionally (more on that in a minute) – for over a week now, I’ve been laid up with the worst flu I’ve ever experienced. Hence, it’s taken a bit longer than anticipated to start blogging again. So I hope, gentle reader, that you’ll forgive my silence up until now.

I had a wonderful time in Madrid and Barcelona, which has given me some fodder for some upcoming posts. All went very well until it was time to head back, and due to a combination of airlines and airport factors I missed my connecting flight in Heathrow. The Dante-like experience of getting rebooked for the following afternoon was something which I prefer not to recount. As a result, after a 15 year absence from England, I spent the night in a hotel near the airport, and although I could have gone into the city to see friends, I was so wiped out from the experience that I just vegetated in my room.

On the flight back to DC the following afternoon, I was treated to a plane full of people coughing their brains out and complaining of flu-like symptoms. Whether I picked it up from them, or from my similarly afflicted relatives in Spain – where the news was reporting nightly on a pandemic of “Australian flu” throughout the country – upon my return to the States I ended up trapped in bed for a week, apart from a couple of medical visits where I was warned to isolate myself due to my being “extremely contagious.” I’m still not completely okay, but at least am well enough to share some news with my readers. Don’t worry: this particular form of plague cannot be transmitted via reading a blog post, or so I am led to believe.

So let’s get to it, shall we?

Get A Head

Saint Aredius (or St. Yrieix, as he is more commonly known in France) lived in the 6th century A.D., and served as the first Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery which he founded in the town of Attanum, about 30 miles outside of Limoges. Attanum was subsequently renamed for St. Yrieix, and his tomb became a popular pilgrimage shrine thanks to his reputation for working miracles. During the 11th century a reliquary was created by local craftsmen to contain the skull of the saint and, through the vicissitudes of history, this object – minus the skull – ended up being purchased about 1,000 years later by American financier J.P. Morgan; it is currently in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In an extremely unusual but very interesting move, the town of St. Yrieix is now demanding that The Met return the reliquary of its patron saint. The essentials of the argument are that, first, all Church property was expropriated by the state during the French Revolution in 1789, and second, subsequent laws passed in 1891 and 1905 meant that cultural treasures such as these became protected state property, which could not be exported out of France without express government permission. In this case, it is alleged that the reliquary was privately sold to a French art dealer by the local parish priest in 1906, who replaced the original with a copy; the original was then subsequently re-sold to an English art dealer, who sold it to Morgan. All of this would, in theory, have been illegal at the time.

I won’t comment on the specific legal arguments here, although it certainly sounds like there are at least grounds for a hearing of some sort. From the standpoint of precedent, this could be the beginning of a major headache for a number of museums, particularly in the United States, where the robber barons and financiers of the Gilded Age stuffed their homes in Manhattan and Newport with religious objects from France, Italy, and Spain, many of which may have been exported under somewhat clouded circumstances. No word yet on how The Met intends to respond.

From a design standpoint what is particularly fascinating about this reliquary is the fact we can see the foundational wooded carving which the decorated surface metals are attached to, in this image from a catalogue of Medieval sculpture published by The Met.

Framework

Get A Clue

Just when you thought the furor over the auction of “The Last Da Vinci” was over, researchers may have just discovered another, very early work by the Master. Scholars have long known that Da Vinci completed his apprenticeship in the workshop of the Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488), who by his own admission was a better sculptor than a painter. A very famous example of this is in Verrocchio’s “The Baptism of Christ”, now in The Uffizi, where the twisting angel on the far left, painted by the young Da Vinci, is far more complex and accomplished than the other figures in the altarpiece. Now, The Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts is launching a new exhibition claiming that a work in its permanent collection is an early work by the young Leonardo.

“A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo” (c. 1479-1485) is a predella painting – a smaller panel attached underneath a larger panel – that was part of a larger commission that Verrocchio was contracted to complete for the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the Cathedral of Pistoia, about 20 miles from Florence. Verrocchio’s patrons were the Medici family, who commissioned the altarpiece in honor of their late uncle, Donato de’ Medici , who had been Bishop of Pistoia. The main image, of the Madonna and Child flanked by St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, and St. Donatus, patron saint of the late bishop, was begun by Verrocchio but completed by another of his assistants, Lorenzo di Credi (1459-1537).

Thanks to advances in technology and a growing knowledge base for close, analytical comparison of known works by Da Vinci to works believed to be by him, scholars involved in this exhibition seem fairly convinced that around 80% of this small painting was executed by Da Vinci, probably with the help of his fellow workshop apprentice Credi. To my mind what is a particularly persuasive clue here is the fact that the predella is executed in oil, rather than tempera paint. Few Italian artists were using oil paint at this point in art history, but Leonardo was definitely using it by the early 1470’s, well within the timeline for this picture. Those of you who find yourselves in the Worcester, Mass. Area this spring will have to toddle along and have a look, and let us know what you think.

Leo

Get On Board

Contemporary French artist and designer Mathieu Lehanneur works in many genres and materials, including architecture, lighting, and furniture. His most recent exhibition, “50 Seas”, which opens today at Christie’s in Paris, features fifty ceramic discs, each representing the sea in different geographic areas of the globe, a bit like taking a virtual cruise around the world’s oceans and peeping out of the porthole as you go. I particularly appreciate the painstaking, dare I say it, geeky-nerdy way that he went about finishing these works, as he explained to Christie’s:

I partnered with the French satellite photography company Planet Observateur. It provided me with high-resolution images of each of the 50 points, from which we colour-matched the enamel paint by eye. We probably made close to 2,000 paint samples before I was happy that each was accurate enough. It takes a lot of learning and mixing because the colours change enormously during the firing process, so they look wildly different between start and finish.’

At Christie’s in Paris, they will be mounted on the walls in one long row, at eye level. This is so that the audience can easily compare one to the next, and feel as if they’re in front of the water. Below each piece will be the GPS coordinates and name of each location. That way, you can know where you’re looking, whether it is the Yucatán Peninsula or the Caspian Sea. Each ceramic will operate like a window on to a world of water, allowing people to travel the planet.’

If you’ve ever worked in ceramics, you know that this is a serious pain in the behind to get right. Just because you put a glaze on something before you fire it in the kiln does not mean that it will turn out exactly the way that you want. Not only can the colors change, sometimes radically, from what you think they will be, but if the slightest thing goes wrong during the process you could end up with a ruined piece, and have to start all over again. So in this case the artist is not exaggerating when he says that they probably had to try nearly 2,000 times to get the 50 different final results which were kept.

This combination of technology, craftsmanship, and love of the complexities of the natural world is exactly the sort of thing which Catalan Modernista architects and artists such as Gaudí would have loved. Were he living in early 20th century Barcelona they would be clamoring for Lehanneur to collaborate with them on decorating a residence or a public building with these richly colored, undulating designs. “50 Seas” is on view at Christie’s Auction House in Paris until February 2nd.

Seas