First de Koonings Out of the Gate Net Big Payday for Finder

The hammer prices were $1 million and $60,000
"Untitled I," an oil on newpaper work by Willem de Kooning, sold for $60,000 at auction on Sunday. David Killen Gallery

The first two of six Willem de Kooning works discovered earlier this year in a storage container in Northern New Jersey went on the auction block on Sunday in Manhattan.

"Untitled II," an oil on paper work which measures 65 by 43 inches, achieved a final price of $1.2 million with a 20-percent buyers premium added. A 29-by-22-inch oil paint on newspaper drawing listed as "Untitled I" was purchased by Mark Borghi, a dealer with galleries in New York, Bridgehampton, and Palm Beach at a final price of $72,000 after the buyer's premium. 

The two works were sold by the David Killen auction gallery. They were part of a collection of art objects found in the Orrin Riley Studio storage unit, which Mr. Killen purchased this year for $15,000. Mr. Riley and his partner Susanne Schnitzer ran a successful conservation business in New York City. One of its specialties was modern and contemporary art.

After a nine-year effort by the New York State attorney general's office to restore the artwork left in the storage unit to its owners, the remaining works were declared abandoned and cleared to be sold.

Lawrence Castagna, a conservator, was asked to restore the work and agreed with Mr. Killen that the art was by de Kooning. Mr. Castagna had worked for Mr. Riley earlier in his career and was also a studio assistant to de Kooning in the 1980s. He continues to live in Springs and has his own restoration business there.

He told The Star in July, "Anyone who knows anything about de Kooning wouldn't deny what they were." The six works are unsigned, which is not unusual.

There are four other art works remaining, two more larger-format paintings on paper and two more paintings on newsprint. They will go on sale Nov. 11 and Dec. 9, with a small work paired with a larger work as on Sunday. Mr. Killen has given estimates of the value of the works ranging from $10,000 to $10 million, but has also said those were very loose valuations. 

Mr. Castagna previously said that the newsprint drawings were the result of the artist cleaning his brushes when he finished his work for the day in his studio. He would set old newspapers on the floor and run the brushes over them. "People who came to his studio said they liked the resulting images and he would give them away." They are now fetching prices in the range of $60,000 to $80,000. The auction house's conservative pre-sale estimate for both works sold on Sunday was $2,000 to $3,000. There were many bids on both.

Mr. Killen has received confirming opinions as to the works' validity from two sources, Mr. Castagna and an expert he hired who he said wished to remain anonymous. Their provenance also works in their favor. Yet, there remains some question of authenticity that may never be answered definitely. De Kooning does not have a catalogue raisonne, a complete list of works that scholars and his foundation have agreed are by the artist's hand. The artist's foundation also declines to authenticate work.

An earlier version of this story mentioned only one of the two works sold on Sunday, "Untitled I," and omitted its purchaser and the buyers premiums.

"Untitled II" received $1.2 million after a 20 percent buyer's premium.David Killen Gallery