May of 2021, after over 50 years of treasure hunting in the machinery business, I am still making a living by searching for overlooked items to find diamonds covered in cutting oil. Some of these machines we might have actually sold their current owners. It makes me think back to a blog I wrote in 2018 about six de Kooning paintings found by a man named David Killen in a New Jersey storage locker. I decided to check up on what happened to the paintings and see if they sold for much money.
Here is the original blog, followed by an update of what happened to the paintings.
David Killen is an art dealer in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. He is also a treasure hunter of the modern variety, a profession a humble used machinery dealer like myself connects with.
David is the kind of guy who frequents flea markets and auctions, not just because he needs inventory for his own bi-monthly auctions of prints and Tchotchkes, but because he loves the hunt. He’s 59 now and has been schlepping around art fairs and Swap-O-Ramas for 50 years. He thought that one day he might find an overlooked stash of value. It looks like he finally did.
Late last year at an estate sale in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, Killen bought the contents of a locker in a warehouse. The property had been owned by Susanne Schnitzer, who was the partner of Orrin Riley, a prominent art restorer who had restored several paintings by the Dutch painter Willem de Kooning. Riley died in 1986, and Schnitzer was run over by a garbage truck in New York City in 2009.
Schnitzer’s friends from New Jersey were her executors and they ultimately tired of paying the warehouse fees on the odds and ends in the locker. They had an auction house peruse the contents before they sold it, and it was pronounced “junk.” A bunch of prints of little value.
Killen lives for times like this. The rules of the game in situations of this nature are that the bidders get a glimpse of the contents but cannot analyze the goods in depth.
It’s a lot like bidding on a warehouse crammed with the flotsam and jetsam of 50 years of screw machining. ACMEs, Davenports and New Britains caked with chips, clotted oil and crud, chip conveyors and stock reels askew, making for an obstacle course tougher than an an American Ninja Warrior challenge. I’ve seen men fall into the base of 8-spindle ACMEs, never to be heard from again.
David Killen knew the locker’s contents had the “junk” judgement by the fancy auction house, but he also knew the history of Orrin Riley being a confidante of de Kooning back in the 1970s when nobody knew his name. A guy like Killen develops a nose for value over 50 years. Did he have special inside knowledge about the locker? No. I can say this confidently because he hauled the contents out last December in his own truck and didn’t even check everything out immediately. It was just another collection of dusty goodies that he would auction off in his sweet time.
But then he saw the wooden boxes that said de Kooning printed on the outside. Maybe these weren’t prints. He had suspected there could be some gold in the locker when he bought it, or he would not have paid $15,000. He knew the background of Orrin Riley, who had done restoration work on de Kooning and begun the restoration department for the Guggenheim Museum. Riley was “big time.” David Killen’s nose for treasure smelled something sweet.
Last week Killen made an announcement to the press that he owned six authentic, but unsigned de Kooning paintings. They were authenticated by Lawrence Castagna, an art restoration authority who had worked both for Riley and as a studio assistant for de Kooning. Castagna feels confident that six of the paintings are the real thing. Willim de Kooning died in 1997, and his foundation in Manhattan does not authenticate works by the artist.
Killen also found a painting by Paul Klee, the famous Swiss painter.
The most recent comps on the seven original works of art, though the de Koonings are unsigned, would indicate a value of around $100 million for the group. What a haul for a struggling art dealer who deals mostly in nice prints.
As a lifelong treasure hunter who has never found a de Kooning myself, I love this story. I am not jealous of David Killen. I am thrilled for him.
His story is about the chase, not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I could have done a lot of other things in my career, but the machinery treasure hunt and all of the fascinating folks I’ve met along the way has kept me passionately in the game. I love it as much as ever, probably more, because I am acutely aware of the time limits we all have.
I really hope the de Koonings are the real thing, but honestly, I don’t think it will change David Killen much either way. At least I hope not.
Update: Killen was not one to sit on his prizes hoping they would gain in value with more scrutiny. He held an auction at his own gallery for the largest piece, with himself as the auctioneer. To his delight, it brought $1.2M in 2018. He sold the other five works sometime after on eBay for $1.3M, meaning he had pulled in $2.5M for his $15,000 educated gamble.
Question: What treasure have you uncovered?
I went to an auction in the mid 1980s after I started my business. It was not a machinery auction but other industrial stuff. There were 3 Traub screw machines, 1 A25 I believe and 2 other Traubs. And 1 3/4 diameter OG Brown and Sharp, chain drive. Didnt know how to run any of them. Cleaned and painted the OG and A15. Borrowed a book on how to make cams for the B & S. Made a couple cams and figured out how to make it run. An experienced screw machinist checked out the B & S and said it was excellent shape and couldn’t believe what I paid for it. At auction I paid $370.00 for all 4 machines. I ran the Brownie for a few years on just one job and when I got into CNC I decide to sell them all. Sold all 4 for $10,500.00 a few years later. Was a good investment and being in the right place at the right time.
I like hunting at scrap yards and industrial surplus places. One of my better deals was a Bridgeport size CNC mill I found and bought for $500. I tinkered with it, replaced a bad encoder, and got it working. Used in in my shop for several years until a guy asked to buy it. At $4500 it was an offer I had to accept.
I remember this column. It was nice to read it again and also the update. Recently I went hunting for another column and found also some updates. It was “a faceless man’s plea” by Mike Royko.