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 W. Steve Seltzer  (1955 - )

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Lived/Active: California/Montana      Known for: genre often nostalgic and landscape painting

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Steve Seltzer is primarily known as W. Steve Seltzer

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Ad Code: 2
W Steve Seltzer
from Auction House Records.
Almost Home (2013)
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
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:
Painter Steve Seltzer grew up with the influence of his grandfather's, O.C. Seltzer's, western artwork, and has always held an interest in art.  This influence is apparent even in Steve Seltzer's earliest pieces, which often feature western subject matter.  It was not until the mid-70's, after graduating from Montana State University and working in the architectural and real estate fields, that he decided to concentrate on his passion for painting.

With this decision to become a full time painter, Seltzer and his wife moved to Southern California where he shared his enthusiasm and his studio with brother-in-law and fellow artist Dan McCaw. In California, he studied with well-known Russian artist Sergei Bongart whose impressionistic influences as well as McCaw's and fellow artist Don Putman, inspired him to experiment with subjects outside the Western theme, such as reflected light on the sea and sand.

However, Seltzer is quick to explain: "Subject matter comes second to the atmosphere, the feeling, the flavor I want to suggest." It is this belief that allows him to continue painting with such variety. Whether the subject is Western or impressionistic, his goal is to suggest rather than describe, to allow the audience to create their own interpretations.

In 1996, Steve Seltzer won the Juror's Award and the Artist's Award for the best painting and group of paintings at the Northwest Rendevous show in Park City, Utah.  The following year, he won the Peoples Choice Award at the Chapparal Gallery's annual summer show.  He is one of only two artists to be accepted into all 35 C.M. Russell Auctions, and he won the Auction's 1998 Scriver award, the 2000 Artist's Choice award, and the 2003 Best of Show award.


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