For many years before giving it to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 1986, the late Seymour H. Knox Jr. kept the compact color drawing in his home, where it hung on a dressing room wall.
On Nov. 11, Willem de Kooning's abstract work on paper, titled "Woman," will be featured far more prominently at Christie's auction house in New York City, where the Albright-Knox expects it to command an outsize price. Christie's predicts the 28-by-20-inch picture will fetch $800,000 to $1.2 million, but the gallery clearly hopes for more.
"We feel that is a conservative estimate," said Douglas G. Schultz, Albright-Knox executive director.
Unusual circumstances prompted the decision to sell, said Charles E. Balbach, president of the board of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, which governs the renowned modern art museum on Elmwood Avenue.
Because of its relatively small size, the drawing was a poor fit for the Albright-Knox's spacious halls. It has been exhibited only once since arriving more than a decade ago.
"It really needs to go into an intimate space," Balbach noted.
The colorful sketch on paper also is susceptible to ultraviolet rays -- another reason it has remained in the dark most of the time.
The gallery owns a number of superior de Koonings, including one of the very best, "Gotham News," which was painted in 1955 and given to the Albright-Knox in 1977 by Seymour H. Knox Jr., who led the museum to international prominence before his death in 1990. The large painting is regularly on view in the Elmwood Avenue museum.
Interest in abstract expressionism -- the art movement that stresses the depiction of emotion through shapes and colors -- is heating up.
Proceeds from the de Kooning sale will be used to purchase works by other artists of this genre who are now under-represented in the Albright-Knox collection.
De Kooning died in 1996. A famous artist's demise invariably boosts demand for his works, and that certainly has been the case with the Dutch-born de Kooning, considered one of the great artists of his time and a dominant figure in the abstract expressionist art movement.
Since he died at 92 in his East Hampton, L.I., studio, the market in de Koonings has taken off.
The Albright-Knox's drawing, part of a colorful series of works all titled "Woman," represents "an interesting early work by a painter that has become more valuable because of his recent death," Balbach said.
The Knox family gave its blessing. Northrup R. Knox, son of Seymour H. Knox Jr. and brother of the late Seymour H. Knox III, who preceded Balbach as academy board president, "suggested that we sell the drawing," Balbach said.
Schultz expects the picture -- oil, enamel and charcoal on paper mounted on linen -- to spur heavy bidding by private collectors, particularly a California-centered group that has been snapping up abstract expressionist works with regularity.
At the Albright-Knox, selling off even relatively minor works "is the exception rather than the rule," Schultz stressed. "We have deaccessioned only three or four times in the last 92 years."
The last instance was in 1991, when Vincent van Gogh's "Vase With Daisies and Poppies" was purchased anonymously for $9.5 million, several months after it was withdrawn from auction at Christie's because bidding had fallen short of expectations.