Years can go by without the unique modernist Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944) appearing on the art market. Her estate went mainly to museums and universities. That made 2020 a banner year with five pieces showing up in auction houses and galleries across the United States.
Only two were actually created by Stettheimer. Two of the other plants were withdrawn from the market and the assignment of the third was changed.
Stettheimer is popular for her ultra-feminine, faux-naive style, which is expressed in detailed paintings that often depict her circle of friends, including the artist Marcel Duchamp, the writer Carl Van Vechten and the sculptor Elie Nadelman. But besides authenticity issues, the current sale raised another question: How do you rate a famous artist whose work is rarely available?
Late last year, the Boston-based Skinner auction house announced that it was selling a Stettheimer painting entitled “Seated Dancer in an Atrium of Electric Light,” showing a young woman with a large lightbulb behind her, in its January art sale Record turns 22 and estimated the work at $ 70,000 to $ 90,000.
For at least one Stettheim expert, a different type of light bulb went out.
“It’s not a Stettheimer”, explained the art historian Barbara Bloemink, who organized “Manhattan Fantastica”, the Stettheimer exhibition of the Whitney Museum of American Art, with Elisabeth Sussman in 1995, and wrote a biography about Stettheimer that expanded it considerably. She also compiles a catalog raisonné. “It’s a crap kitsch thing, probably painted in the 50s or 60s,” said Bloemink of the Skinner painting. “She would never have painted those fluorescent, strange colors.”
Bloemink said she called Skinner to tell them the painting was misidentified. (Skinner holds the Stettheim auction record of $ 375,000 in 2016 for a flower still life.)
Robin Starr, Skinner’s director of American and European art, said the auction house had authenticated “Seated Dancer” with “some of the obvious” Stettheimer experts, but she declined to name them. In December Skinner pulled “Seated Dancer” out of his auction, calling it the result of a “difference of opinion”.
According to Starr, “Seated Dancer” was brought into the house as an authentic Stettheimer by a collector from San Francisco who recently bought the painting through an intermediary and refused to comment.
This reporter traced Seated Dancer to Shapiro Auctions in Mamaroneck, NY, where it was sold under the name Ballerina for $ 375 including fees last July. Dasha Badikova, a specialist at Shapiro, said the work was only “attributed” to Florine Stettheimer as there is limited provenance to authenticate it. “There was no catalog raisonné,” she said.
That fall, another work purported to be a Stettheimer appeared in listings at Rago Arts and Auction in New Jersey, part of an art treasure at the Spanierman Gallery, a specialist in American art, that closed in 2014. Paperwork shows a half-clad female figure with additional arms and legs lying on a divan. Stettheimer’s name is at the bottom of the drawing, but the corner next to it appears to have been torn off. Bloemink was made aware of the sale and provided Rago with proof that the drawing was not from Stettheim – but in an interesting twist it once belonged to the painter.
A photo taken in the bathroom of Stettheimer’s midtown studio in the 1940s shows the drawing resting on the edge of a vanity. Next to Stettheimer’s name, in the corner that is now missing, is the signature “Paul Thévenaz 1916”.
As a dancer and artist, Thévenaz was a friend of Stettheimer’s, who can be seen in two of her real paintings – doing a handstand in “Sunday Afternoon in the Country” and taking pictures with a boxing camera in “Asbury Park South”. Known for his decorative paintings and portraits influenced by Cubism, Thévenaz was on the rise when he died in 1921 at the age of just 30.
Meredith Hilferty, visual arts director at Rago, said the documentation accompanied the inventory of paintings that were by Spanierman, but not most of the works on paper. Rago only questioned the origins of the multi-limbed lady when Bloemink interfered, and then Rago quickly changed the auction description, listing Stettheimer as an origin rather than an artist. The drawing sold for $ 5,000 in September, 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.”
Bloemink also learned of a third falsely identified Stettheimer that was supposed to be handled by a Manhattan gallery. “It wasn’t a painting,” she said. “But I can’t tell you more. The owner is a friend whose business is being damaged. “She said the owner returned the work to his shipper after talking to Bloemink. It is unclear whether this work will still be bought as a Stettheimer.
Stettheimer was born into a financially strong family and neither needed nor wanted to sell her art. She once famously said that “letting people have your pictures is like letting them wear your clothes.” After her death in 1944, most of her work was institutionalized. Nevertheless, every now and then a legitimate Stettheimer turns up.
In 1949, “Asbury Park South,” one of Stettheimer’s premier paintings depicting an interracial crowd on a restricted beach in New Jersey, was donated to Fisk University by Florine’s sister Ettie. In 2010, when finances were tight, the historically black school in Nashville quietly sold it to a dealer – an action that drew criticism when the Times exposed it. It was the first time in 20 years that a big Stettheimer came onto the market. Another dealer resold it at the Armory Show in New York in 2012 for an undisclosed amount.
In 2020, two legitimate Stettheimers – both with a lot of origins – walked through New York galleries on their way to new owners. When a Stettheimer shows up it is usually one of her flower paintings that was sold by Debra Force Fine Art. “We loved it,” said Force, “because her work doesn’t come up very often.” Force didn’t want to reveal the final price, but said the gallery was originally asking for $ 600,000 and was happy with what the painting brought in.
The Alexandre Gallery also sold a real Stettheimer last year, the work “Fourth of July, No. 2 ”from 1927. Phil Alexandre, the gallery’s president, would not disclose the amount his new owner paid, but said that when” Fourth of July, No. 2 “reappeared in his gallery today, he would between $ 775,000 and $ 825,000 and is confident it would sell quickly.
If so, why wasn’t a Stettheimer portrait of Marcel Duchamp auctioned at Christie’s in 2017? The unusual and important painting, framed by rows of silver “MD” (Stettheimer often designed her own frames), shows Duchamp twice – both as his conventional self and as his female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. The pre-sale estimate was $ 1 million to $ 1.5 million but did not reach reserve.
“The challenge with Stettheimer,” said Eric Widing, vice chairman at Christie’s, “is that so little of their art comes out that there is a lack of good price data for people to evaluate.” But after the auction, Christie’s experienced what Widing called “one of the most active after-sale storms of interest I’ve ever seen”.
Within a week, he said, Stettheimer’s portrait of Duchamp was privately selling “at a substantial price”.