Why Were So Many Stettheimer Art Works Up for Sale? Not All Were Real

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Years can pass without work by the singular modernist Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944) appearing on the art market. Her estate went mostly to museums and universities. Which made 2020 a banner year, with five pieces popping up at auction houses and galleries in the United States.

Only two turned out to have been actually created by Stettheimer. Of the other works, two were removed from the marketplace and the attribution changed on the third.

Stettheimer is beloved for her ultrafeminine faux-naïf style, expressed in richly detailed paintings that often featured her circle of friends, including the artist Marcel Duchamp, the writer Carl Van Vechten, and the sculptor Elie Nadelman. But along with authenticity issues, the current sales raised another question: how do you value a storied artist whose work is rarely available?

Late last year, the Boston-based Skinner auction house announced that it would include a Stettheimer painting, “Seated Dancer in a Halo of Electric Light,” depicting a young woman with a large light bulb behind her, in its fine art sale on Jan. 22, and estimated the work at $70,000 to $90,000.

For at least one Stettheimer expert, another kind of light bulb went off.

“It’s not a Stettheimer,” declared the art historian Barbara Bloemink, who organized “Manhattan Fantastica,” the Whitney Museum of American Art’s landmark 1995 Stettheimer exhibit with Elisabeth Sussman, and wrote a biography of Stettheimer which she is substantially expanding. She is also compiling a catalogue raisonné. “It’s a crap kitsch thing, probably painted in the ’50s or ’60s,” Bloemink said of the Skinner painting. “She never would have painted those fluorescent, weird colors.”

Bloemink said she called Skinner to tell them that the painting was misidentified. (Skinner holds the Stettheimer auction record, $375,000, in 2016 for a floral still life.)

Robin Starr, Skinner’s director of American and European Art, said the auction house authenticated “Seated Dancer” with “some of the obvious” Stettheimer experts, but she declined to name them. In December, Skinner pulled “Seated Dancer from its auction, calling it the result of “a difference of scholarly opinion.”

According to Starr, “Seated Dancer” was consigned to the house as an authentic Stettheimer by a collector from San Francisco who recently purchased the painting through an intermediary and who declined to comment.

This reporter was able to trace “Seated Dancer” to Shapiro Auctions in Mamaroneck, N.Y., where it sold last July for $375 including fees under the name “Ballerina.” Dasha Badikova, a specialist at Shapiro, said the work was merely “attributed” to Florine Stettheimer because there was limited provenance to authenticate it. “There was no catalogue raisonné” to check against, she said.

Meredith Hilferty, director of fine art at Rago, said documentation accompanied the inventory of paintings that came from Spanierman, but not most of the works on paper. Rago did not question the provenance of the many-limbed lady until Bloemink weighed in, and then Rago quickly changed the auction description, listing Stettheimer as provenance rather than artist. The drawing sold in September for $5,000, well above its high estimate of $1,500. Hilferty said she did not know when or how the corner of the drawing disappeared. And with the death of Ira Spanierman, the gallery’s owner, in 2019, she said, “There’s really no one to ask.”

In 2020, two legitimate Stettheimers — both accompanied by plenty of provenance — passed through New York galleries on their way to new owners. If a Stettheimer does appear, it is usually one of her floral paintings, which is what was sold by Debra Force Fine Art. “We were thrilled to have it,” said Force, “because her work does not come up very often.” Force would not reveal the final price, but said the gallery originally asked $600,000 and was pleased with what the painting brought.

The Alexandre Gallery also sold a genuine Stettheimer last year, the 1927 work “Fourth of July #2.” Phil Alexandre, the president of the gallery, would not name the amount its new owner paid, but said if “Fourth of July #2” reappeared in his gallery today, he would ask between $775,000 and $825,000 and is confident it would sell quickly.

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