Art Dealer Discovers Six Alleged Willem de Kooning Paintings in New Jersey Storage Locker

Boxes labeled with artist’s name were found among the 200 abandoned works

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Willem de Kooning’s boundary-crossing oeuvre defies classification. Although the artist is commonly linked with abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, his figurative paintings veer away from the abstract, reveling in the contours of the female body through an aggressive blend of gestural strokes. As de Kooning himself once proclaimed, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.”

Some two decades after his death in 1997, the Dutch-American painter remains one of the giants of modern art. Now, his fans have a new reason to be excited: previously unknown works allegedly painted by de Kooning during the ’70s are due to hit the market this fall.

According to the New York Post’s Melissa Klein, Chelsea gallery owner David Killen discovered the paintings—as well as a canvas he attributes to Swiss-German modernist Paul Klee—in a storage unit he purchased last year for $15,000. The 200 canvases housed inside had originally belonged to art conservator Orrin Riley, who ran a restoration business out of his Manhattan studio until his death in 1986. Following the 2009 death of Riley’s partner, Susanne Schnitzer, the works spent nine years in limbo as the couple’s executors tried to track down their original owners.

“If you look at [the paintings] closely, you can see there are slight tears and holes here and there,” Killen tells Anthony G. Attrino of “I believe they were given to Orrin to be restored after the owners collected insurance.”

By the end of their search, the executors still held hundreds of paintings, and after receiving the New York State Attorney General Office’s permission to sell the “abandoned” property, they decided to offer the works to auction houses.

One high-profile company turned down the paintings, Killen tells Klein, and it was easy to see why: “I thought it was a bunch of junk,” the art dealer explains to Attrino. “I saw good, bad and ugly. Overall, I thought it was garbage, but I’m always looking for filler.”

Killen offered the executors $75 per painting, or $15,000 overall, and resigned himself to selling the works at his gallery’s bimonthly auctions. Then, as he began loading the storage locker’s contents onto a truck, he saw several boxes labeled “de Kooning.” Inside were six paintings—previously identified by the executors as markedly less-valuable prints—that appeared to bear the artist’s singular stylings, and though he couldn’t be sure, Killen knew the discovery might be the key to recouping his investment (and then some).

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