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Art dealer buys storage locker full of 'junk', finds six priceless paintings

David Killen says the priceless find ‘is not about the money – I want some publicity for my auction house’.

Exhibition 'Women' at the Pinakothek der Moderne 'Flowers, Mary's Table, by Willem de Kooning, on display in Munich, Germany, in 2012 Source: DPA/PA Images

WHEN AN AMERICAN art dealer dropped $15,000 (€12,830) on what he thought was “junk” in a New Jersey storage locker, he never imagined it could be the deal of a lifetime.

But he now believes stashed in the unit were six paintings by Dutch-American abstract master Willem de Kooning, which could be worth millions of dollars.

The auction record for a de Kooning is $66.3 million (€56.7 million), set for large canvas “Untitled XXV” at Christie’s in 2016, while another sold privately for a reported $300 million (€257 million) in 2015.

Another piece of luck, according to New York gallery owner David Killen, is a painting by Swiss modernist Paul Klee that he says was also found in the unit.

The works originally came from the studio of Orrin Riley, a superstar in the art restoration business who died in 1986, leaving everything to his partner, Susanne Schnitzer, who was killed in a traffic accident in 2009.

Her executors – friends in New Jersey – spent years trying to find rightful owners for the art, but no one came forward to claim the 200 pieces languishing in the storage unit, near the Ho-Ho-Kus township.

Willem de Kooning Willem de Kooning, pictured in 1956 aged47 Source: DPA/PA Images

“Honestly all I knew was (an)other auction house passed on it, so my feeling was it was a bunch of junk,” Killen told AFP by telephone.

“All these things are boxed up. I said, ‘Look, I’ll give you $15,000 for it. I’ll take a chance,’” he said. If nothing else, he thought the items would pad out auctions he holds every two weeks.

It was only once the items were being unloaded that he spotted what he believes to be de Kooning paintings.

‘Blown away’

The work is not signed, but Killen said a restorer based on Long Island, who used to work for both Riley and de Kooning, also believes they are genuine.

“I can see in his eyes, he’s shaking,” Killen told AFP. “He said ‘this is exactly what de Kooning was doing in the ’70s, one after the other’.”

Art conservator Lawrence Castagna says he “absolutely” believes the six oil-on-paper works to be de Koonings, but stressed it was “just my opinion.”

“I’m just blown away by the whole discovery to tell you the truth,” he told AFP.

Castagna said he did “minor repair work” but otherwise the works would be sold as they were found, anticipating significant interest when they go on display for the first time publicly in nearly 35 years.

Killen is hosting a party tomorrow to unveil the paintings, which he believes could fetch anywhere from $10,000 to $10 million when he offers them for auction later this year and next January.

“I’m excited. Believe it or not – and people will laugh when they hear this – it’s not about the money. I want some publicity for my auction house,” he said.

But what would he do with a bonanza cheque? New doors for his gallery and a “really nice apartment”, he replies.

The New York Post first reported the story last weekend. Since then, the telephone has been ringing off the hook, says Killen.

The reaction’s been tremendous.

© – AFP, 2018

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