Sunday, January 3, 2010

Who painted, “Lassoing a Longhorn?”

For years those in the know in the art world, especially those who appreciated the art of Western America, acknowledged that Charles M. Russell, well-known artist of the American West, painted “Lassoing a Longhorn.”

Lassoing a longhorn

This is certainly what art collector, Steve Morton, believed. He owns the painting and points to the bottom left hand corner where Charlie Russell signed the painting in 1913, over his trademark sketch of a steer’s skull. Morton bought the painting in 1972 for $38,000 from the prestigious Kennedy Gallery, where Russell expert, Rudy Wunderlich, declared the painting to be a high quality Russell. In 2001 Morton arranged to sell the painting at the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction. The expected sale would be around $800,000. But, Stuart Johnson, a partner in the auction house, questioned whether “Lassoing a Longhorn” was actually a Russell. According to Johnson when examining the painting, “this doesn’t look like a Russell; it looks like a Seltzer.” If Olaf C. Seltzer painted “Lassoing a Longhorn” the sale price would be considerably lower than $800,000.

Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), a native of St. Louis, started his career as the “cowboy” artist after arriving in Montana when he was little over sixteen years old.

Along with working as a cowhand, he occupied his time sketching the scenes of late nineteenth century Montana. By the time of his death in 1926, Russell’s work included 4000 sketches, oils, watercolors and sculptures.

Smoke of a .45 by Russell

Russell was a generous man. He befriended other artists, sharing his knowledge and style with them. Olaf C. Seltzer (1877-1957) a native of Denmark, who had moved to Montana to work on the Great Northern Railroad, was lucky to paint with Charlie. Russell’s influence can be seen in Seltzer’s work.

Robbery by Olaf C. Seltzer

Faro Game, Olaf C. Seltzer

To authenticate “Lassoing a Longhorn,” Stuart Johnson contacted Ginger K. Renner, a leading authority of Russell paintings. Mrs. Renner declared the painting a fake. Mrs. Renner’s expertise of Russell’s work was inherited from her husband, Fred, who grew up near Charlie in Great Falls, Montana. And, Ginger Renner owns 100 Russell paintings. Fred Renner also published a catalog of Russell’s works housed at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. This is significant to the story since Renner included in the catalog as belonging to Russell, “Lassoing a Longhorn.”

Regardless of the inclusion of the painting in Fred Renner’s catalog, Ginger Renner held her opinion that “It’s a helluva painting, but it’s not Charlie Russell…it’s an O.C. Seltzer.” Even Steve Seltzer, grandson of the painter, testified that having seen a photo of “Lassoing a Longhorn” in Horizon Magazine in 1979, believed that it was his grandfathers. On such testimony, it was determined that Steve Morton’s painting of “Lassoing a Longhorn” was indeed the work of Seltzer. Consequently, the Coeur d’Alene auction house refused to auction the painting. Steve Morton’s lawyers wrote threatening letters to the auction house demanding that they auction the Russell painting or face a lawsuit. After the auction house did not reply, Mr. Morton sued the grandson Steve Seltzer and Mrs. Renner in Federal Court for wrongly declaring “Lassoing a Longhorn” a Seltzer painting, thereby, reducing the value of the painting to under $50,000. The suit accused Renner and Seltzer of fraud, malice and bad faith.

After Mr. Seltzer provided nine experts who confirmed that the painting was not a Russell, Mr. Morton withdrew his suit. But, Mr. Morton’s financial woes were not over. Mr. Seltzer turned around and sued Mr. Morton for emotional distress and damage to his reputation from “malicious prosecution,” and “abuse of process.” The jury ruled in favor of Mr. Seltzer awarding him $21.4 million in damages. This is one of the biggest judgments in 2004.

Of Course there are appeals and more appeals, but will anyone really be sure who painted “Lassoing a Longhorn?” Charlie Russell is surely shaking his head and wondering what America has come to.

Lewis and Clark and the Lower Columbia by Russell

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