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 Olaf Carl Seltzer  (1877 - 1957)

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Lived/Active: Montana / Denmark      Known for: frontier and Indian genre paitning, illustration

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following, submitted February 2005, is from Mary Scriver of Valier, Montana.
She is the widow of Bob Scriver, western sculptor and sponsor of the Scriver Award at the C.M. Russell Auctions.


On February 7, 2005, in Great Falls, Montana, $21 million in compensatory damages was awarded to Steve Seltzer, artist.  The defendants were Steve Morton, Dennis Gladwell, and Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, a prominent 800 member California law firm.

Seltzer's grandfather, O.C. Seltzer, and Charles M. Russell were contemporaries who liked to paint together, often addressing the same subjects.  Some thought their work was enough alike for each to be mistaken for the other guy.  When the boom in "cowboy art" came, there was motivation for people to try to find Russells and what they HOPED were Russells in estate sales and second-hand stores all over Montana.

Experts like the late Fred Renner or the late Harold McCracken were always being asked to authenticate paintings that were either Russell or Seltzer.  Russell prices are about ten times those of Seltzer.  Authentication is usually provided two ways.  One is a painting's "provenance:" when it was painted, to whom it was sold, and every step of ownership since.  The other is analysis of the actual painting: the palette (colors used), brush strokes (like handwriting), treatment of elements, etc.

A watercolor painting called Lassoing a Longhorn was created, according to the date on the painting, in 1913. The signature now is C.M. Russell.  The "provenance" doesn't begin until the Amon Carter Museum bought the painting in 1939.  The museum de-accessioned it (i.e. sold it for some reason) to or through Kennedy Galleries about 1972, who sold it to Frank and Steve Morton, wealthy brothers who enjoyed collecting Western art.  At some point, the paper had lost four inches off the bottom. Several years ago, the Morton brothers decided to cash in their investment and sent the painting to the owners of the Coeur d'Alene Galleries, who organize a major annual auction.

Looking at the art rather than the provenance, the gallery owner, Drummond, had a partner, Stewart Johnson, who suspected the painting was not a Russell.  At their request, Steve Morton took the painting to Ginger Renner, Fred Renner's widow and one of the current major experts.  She told Morton it was a Seltzer, even though earlier Fred Renner had printed it in a book of "Russell" work.  Later Renner had seen his error and removed it from subsequent issues of the book.

The auction house suggested that the Mortons also contact Steve Seltzer, grandson of Olaf.  Steve is a serious scholar of his grandfather's work and an excellent prize-winning painter in his own right.  His archive of reference materials showed the painting and other similar ones as Seltzers.  In addition, he could cite crucial differences in painting technique.  Coeur d'Alene declined to sell the painting.

Instead of taking their losses as speculators, Morton and a lawyer named Gladwell, who belonged to a massive California firm, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, decided to pressure Steve Seltzer to force him to identify the painting as a Russell.  They sued him for the difference in price between a Russell and a Seltzer plus punitive damages. But nine other experts attested to the painting being clearly a Seltzer, regardless of the signature and provenance, which had a twenty year gap when no one knew who had it.  One told me, "I would be able to tell from looking at one square inch that it was a Seltzer."

The Mortons did find a paper conservator who said she could see no evidence that the signature had been changed, but watercolor, if dampened, is easily lifted off paper.  Then there were those missing inches, suggesting a little strategic altering that couldn't be traced.  The luckless investors threatened the Kennedy Galleries with a lawsuit unless they replaced the "faux Russell" with a real one -- thus admitting they knew they had no suit against Seltzer.  The Kennedy Galleries stonewalled this extortion.

Finally, Morton and Gladwell gave up and withdrew their suit against Steve Seltzer "with prejudice," meaning that it could never be brought again.  But Seltzer now brought countersuit.  The charges were malicious prosecution and abuse of process. Steve Seltzer, middle-aged, tall and serious, had been devastated by the Morton's lawsuit, which accused him of incompetence and dishonesty.  Seltzer was obsessed with the possibility of his home, studio, savings -- everything -- being wiped out, but most of all it was the destruction of his reputation that tormented him.  He read research books; he wrote letters; he got up at night to make lists; he couldn't work, and his guts went crazy.  His wife finally forced him to go to the doctor where luckily a colonoscopy showed no damage.  But he still couldn't eat and lost weight.

Seltzer employed Zander Blewett, one of the most respected lawyers in the state, to file the countersuit.  Morton and Gladwell hired a Missoula lawyer, Gary Graham, to defend them.  It was soon clear that Morton and Gladwell were not just malicious -- intending harm unless they got their way -- but that they were utterly uncaring about the consequences.  They cared nothing about Seltzer -- didn't know him, had never met him.  Morton testified that he was not an art expert, didn't know what the technical term "palette" meant, only bought the painting because he liked it.  (His brother has suffered a stroke and wished not to participate in the lawsuit.)

The jury awarded Steve Seltzer a total of $21,350,000 in damages and court costs. $100,000 from Morton, $150,000 from Gladwell, and $20,000,000 from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher.  A judge will review these amounts.  The defendants may appeal. What mattered to Steve Seltzer was that his integrity and courage were recognized. What matters to the art world is that he stood his ground and spoke to the integrity of the art expert.


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Considered a transition painter between those of the Old West such as Remington and Russell to a later generation that painted only myth and imaginative work, Olaf Seltzer arrived in Great Falls, Montana in 1897, at the age of nineteen.

He had been born in Copenhagen and at age 12 began the study of art at the Technical Institute there. When his father died, his mother emigrated to Great Falls, Montana, and he worked as a cowboy and then as a machinist and locomotive repairman for the Great Northern Railway, often sketching the landscape in his spare time.

In Great Falls, where he lived the remainder of his life, he met Charles Russell, and the two became close friends. Russell critiqued his art and gave him a lot of advice, and some critics think that much of Seltzer's work resembles Russell's.

By 1901, Seltzer was working in oils confidently and had become committed to wildlife painting, gaining much of his knowledge from books. By 1921, he was a full-time painter and in 1926 moved to New York City to help Russell complete some of his commissions.

He created over 2500 works of art during his lifetime including a series of miniatures of Montana history commissioned by Philip Cole, a wealthy collector. The project nearly ruined Seltzer's eyesight, and he had to complete the series by using a magnifying glass.

Source:
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art


Biography from Altermann Galleries & Auctioneers VI:
Olaf Seltzer’s painting of the Old West form a bridge between the pioneering work of artists like Remington and Russell, and a later generation of artists who painted what became history and myth. If Charles M. Russell can be said to have had any pupils or disciples, then Seltzer would qualify on both counts.

He arrived in Great Falls, Montana in 1892 with some limited artistic training, but not much confidence in his abilities. He worked for many years as a machinist for the Great Northern Railway, and the nature of this particular job afforded him some drawing skills and a fair amount of travel. He often sketched the landscape and wildlife, which he saw in his free time.

In 1897, he met Russell, who gave him a great deal of advice and encouragement. They visited each other’s studies, and together went on many sketching and hunting trips in the Montana wilderness. By 1901, Seltzer was confidently working in oils and had become deeply interested in painting wildlife. Unlike Russell, Seltzer gained much of his knowledge about his craft and subjects by reading and researching diligently in libraries, and his painstaking approach soon began to bear fruit in the form of modest sales to local patrons.

A big change came in 1926, when Seltzer and his family moved to New York City where the artist was able to greatly improve his technique. Seltzer returned to Great Falls after his New York experience with new confidence in his art, but tempted by the sadness at the news of the death of his old friend Charles M. Russell.

Much of Seltzer’s work is stylistically very close to that of his mentor. Like Russell, Seltzer often chose the storyteller’s moment when anything could happen. His landscape settings are breathtakingly rendered with many accurate details. After Seltzer’s return to Great Falls in 1927, he lived on the eastern edge of the city in a small bungalow. According to those who knew him, he usually painted in the mornings and then walked downtown for supplies and to read in the library through the afternoon.

Seltzer’s paintings of the West were often based on his fertile imagination, yet they also reflected the spirit of his adopted region, in the manner of his mentor Charles M. Russell.

ReSources include: The American West: Legendary Artists of the Frontier, Dr. Rick Stewart, Hawthorne Publishing Company, 1986

Biography from The Coeur d'Alene Art Auction:
The first fourteen years of Seltzer's life were spent in Copenhagen, Denmark. He attended public schools there, and when he was twelve, his exceptional talent in draftsmanship warranted his admittance as a special student to the Technical Institute of Copenhagen. Upon his father's death, his mother moved the family to Great Falls, Montana.

Seltzer becama a machinist in the Great Northern Railroad shops. After completing his apprenticeship, he became a railway and locomotive repairman and worked industriously at this occupation for over a quarter of a century.

During the early period of his job with the railroad Seltzer met Charles Russell, who taught and encouraged him to paint in both watercolor and oil. For many years, Seltzer practiced his painting on the side, while still holding his job with the railroad. It was not until 1921, however, when there was a massive layoff in the machine repair shops, that he attempted to make a living with his art. To his surprise and delight he found that he could. Local eminence and commissions started to come his way.

In 1926 and 1927 he stayed in New York, studying paintings in the museums and galleries and making contacts with eastern buyers. During the following years, he made many trips to New York and other eastern cities as his work was receiving acceptance there as well as in the West. Lacking the robust and colorful personality of his friend and mentor, Charles Russell, Seltzer did not receive recognition as a first rate Western artist until recent years.

His style, while showing the influence of Russell, also demonstrates his individuality, especially in his subtle use of color and decisiveness of line. Poor eyesight, caused by executing over a hundred miniatures under a powerful magnifying glass, did not prevent Seltzer from being a prolific artist; he turned out over 2500 paintings.

A large collection of his work is owned by the Gilcrease Institute in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Biography from Thomas Nygard Gallery:
O.C. SELTZER (1877-1957)

Olaf began his art training at the age of 12. His family, with their meager means, managed to enroll him in the Danish equivalent of a private school. Here his deft drawing abilities were discovered inspiring his family and teacher to install him at the Technical Society. The Society was a primer for promising young artists considered potential material for the Royal Academy. His hopes for a continued education were dashed when an upheaval in his family resulted in his mother and himself boarding a ship bound for America.

Olaf and his mother arrived in New York on July 12, 1892 and boarded the transcontinental train. Five days later they disembarked in Great Falls, Montana. Olaf worked as a cowboy his first year in Montana, supplying horses for the Yellowstone Stage Lines. The next year he was an apprentice machinist for the Great Northern Railroad, then a locomotive repairman.

At 20 he was inspired by a Canadian patron to begin working in oil. Seltzer's style reflects the influence of his friend Charlie Russell, who had encouraged him as well and painted with him on the many outings they took together. His friendship with Russell brought Seltzer into the company of many famous patrons and bolstered his growing success.

When he was 44 years old he was laid-off by the railroad company and took up painting full time. As a traditional Russell-school Western painter he was very successful. In 1926 he moved to New York to complete several Russell commissions and continue his own work. In 1930 he was commissioned by the wealthy Dr. Philip Cole to paint the series of miniatures on Montana history. Going nearly blind he completed over 2,500 paintings. By 1936, he returned to Montana where he lived for the rest of his life.

His works are held at the Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art ( 234 paintings), Amon Carter Museum, and several private collections.

Biography from William A. Karges Fine Art - Beverly Hills:
Olaf Seltzer was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1877, where he started his art instruction at an
early age. Seltzer’s father died when he was a teen, and, with his mother, he moved to Great Falls,
Montana, where he worked as a cowboy and sketched in his free time. In Great Falls, Seltzer
befriended Charles Russell, who would be a mentor and lifelong friend. By his 20’s, Seltzer was
had committed himself to wildlife art. In 1926, a successful artist in his own right, he moved to
New York to help Russell finish a number of his commissions.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.


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