Jackpot of the Century? An Art Dealer Claims He Found Six de Kooning Paintings in a New Jersey Storage Unit

David Killen paid $15,000 for 200 abandoned artworks, including a potentially sensational discovery.

Willem de Kooning is known for his masterworks of Abstract Expressionist art, such as Untitled XXIII, here seen at Christie's in November 2007. Photo: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images.

It’s better than an episode of Storage Wars.

A New York art dealer who reluctantly bought the contents of an abandoned storage unit in New Jersey for $15,000 thinks he may have unwittingly purchased six previously unknown paintings by Willem de Kooning. David Killen, who runs an eponymous gallery in Chelsea, decided to take a gamble on the art-filled unit after a local auction house turned it down.

According to Killen, the unit contained unclaimed works from the studio of deceased art conservator Orrin Riley, who died in 1986, and his late partner Susanne Schnitzer, who died in 2009. Riley worked in the conservation department at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum before setting up his own practice.

The executors of Schnitzer’s estate unsuccessfully tried for nine years to return the leftover artworks to their original owners. But New York’s attorney general ultimately deemed the property abandoned and released the works to be sold.

Killen says he figured the 200 leftover works were mostly “minor works by minor artists.” He told artnet News he planned to use them as “fillers” for the bi-monthly auctions he hosts at his gallery.

But his gamble paid off handsomely when he stumbled on what he claims are a half-dozen unsigned de Koonings. The de Kooning Foundation does not provide authentication services, so an official ruling will be difficult to come by. But Killen enlisted the artist’s former assistant Lawrence Castagna to offer an opinion.

Castagna told the New York Post he believes the works are authentic and date from the 1970s. “In my opinion, they are [by Willem de Kooning], there’s no doubt about it,” he said. Castagna’s verdict was seconded by “an important authority on de Kooning” who provided his opinion on the condition of anonymity, Killen claims. He says he contacted the de Kooning Foundation to inform them of his discovery, but his calls and emails were not returned.

It remains to be seen whether the market will greet the works with skepticism or enthusiasm. Marion Maneker notes on Art Market Monitor that the artist’s small abstract works from the 1970s have been doing well at auction lately, “which only makes their discovery a little too on the nose, as they say.” A small, but notably signed, abstract from 1977 sold at Phillips in May for $4.2 million, more than twice its $2 million high estimate.

The dealer will unveil the works at a party at his gallery on Tuesday night, and plans to sell them in his upcoming auctions between October and January 2019. According to artnet’s Price Database, de Kooning’s auction record stands at $66.3 million.

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