Purchase Story

The Thrill of the Chase: A Detective Story

Harry Chase (1853-1889) returned to St. Louis, Missouri, at the end of September 1879, after three years of art study in Europe—two years in Paris under Paul Constant Soyer, and a year in The Hague under the great Dutch marine painter Hendrik Willem Mesdag. Twice in those three years, in 1878 and 1879, Chase had been honored with inclusion of his work at the most prestigious art exhibition in the world at the time, the Salon de Paris—a fact that was widely reported in newspapers throughout the United States and had greatly enhanced his reputation before his return.

During his years in Paris and The Hague, Chase had sent home several shipments of paintings to St. Louis. In total, he would create exactly 100 paintings to honor the contract he had made with his patron Henry B. Pettes, co-owner of Pettes & Leathe’s Galleries, who had sponsored him for his studies in Europe. As new shipments arrived during Chase’s years abroad, Pettes & Leathe’s had regularly featured select paintings in shows at its gallery, selling many while Chase was still abroad. However, a large cache of paintings still lay in wait at Pettes & Leathe’s that would constitute a soon-to-be-announced solo show that captivated the city.

Back in the city where his career had begun nearly 12 years before, Chase immediately took a studio in the newly built St. Louis Mutual Life Insurance Building at the northwest corner of 6th and Locust and continued producing works on commission, for exhibitions, and for Pettes & Leathe’s. From December 1879 through February 1880, Chase turned out another couple of dozen works from his studio, most of which were intended for his upcoming solo show and auction, complementing the already large number of superb paintings in storage at the galleries.

To prime the well-to-do to get out their pocketbooks, Pettes & Leathe’s Galleries and its young phenom Harry Chase hosted a private reception just before the public opening of the show. Select members of the cultural elite of St. Louis were invited for the preview. The leading citizens of the fourth-largest city in the nation came to see for themselves what everyone was talking about—Harry Chase and his marine paintings. Wealthy industrialists, silver merchants, military officers, judges, physicians, politicians, and university professors were there that evening. And of course a cadre of fellow artists joined in celebrating Chase’s achievement.

From March 16 to 23, 1880, Pettes & Leathe’s Galleries, located at 606-608 Washington in St. Louis, threw open its doors for the one-man show of 64 works by the young painter Harry Chase. He had just turned 27 years old. As a result of the consistent exhibition of Chase’s paintings at the galleries over the previous three years as he sent works home, and with his recent successes at the Salon de Paris to his credit, not to mention the special preview, “Harry Chase mania” had gripped the St. Louis art aficionados. Consequently, Pettes & Leathe’s was thronged with curious visitors daily during the latest exhibition of Chase’s work. On March 23, the last day of the show, all of the paintings exhibited were put up for auction at no reserve.

Dutch Boats at Anchor, 1880, by Harry Chase. Photo courtesy Tucson Museum of Art, Tucson, Arizona.

Among the works exhibited was a panoramic 13" x 32" oil on canvas titled Dutch Boats at Anchor. It was painted in February 1880 in his studio in the St. Louis Mutual Life Insurance Building, and the subject matter of the painting was of the sort for which Harry Chase became famous in his own lifetime: Dutch coastal scenes.

Among those caught up in the excitement of Harry Chase’s auction was legendary photographer John A. Scholten. A first-generation immigrant from North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, Scholten had found his place among a strong contingent of German Americans in St. Louis, arriving in the city in 1846. An award-winning photographer, Scholten held his studio at 920-922 Olive Street, directly above the dental offices of Harry Chase’s brother, Dr. Edward C. Chase, D.D.S. In his studio, Scholten hung his own collection of fine art, acquired from the various galleries of the city. He had recently purchased three of Harry Chase’s works, paintings shipped from Paris during Chase’s years of study abroad. After he saw the exhibition at Pettes & Leathe’s, Dutch Boats at Anchor especially caught Scholten’s attention.

John A. Scholten. History of Saint Louis City and County, from the Earliest Periods to the Present Day: Including Biographical Sketches of Representative Men, Volume II, by J. Thomas Scharf, published by Louis H. Everts & Co., Philadelphia, 1883.

When the auction finally arrived on March 23, 1880, Scholten was there, together with over 400 of the top-drawer citizens of St. Louis. All of the 64 works up for sale that evening were taken home by proud new owners. The auction pulled in just shy of $6500, approximately $130,000 today. John A. Scholten was successful in his bid for Dutch Boats at Anchor, paying $70 (2018: $1400) for the canvas without its frame.

Rushing back to his studio with his newest work of fine art, Scholten installed the painting in the small gallery in his photography studio. Businessman that he was, Scholten immediately announced that his collection was for sale. On May 8, 1880, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported his intentions: “Scholten’s elegant show windows were being rearranged this morning for a fresh display of large work. In the west window the first thing that catches the eye is a large two-third length figure of Miss Billingsley, in promenade costume. The lovely face is radiant and seems to await but the appearance of a companion picture to continue the stroll. Just inside the door is a life size bust of Mr. George Partridge, also a crayon, lacking but motion to make it life-like. The east window is chiefly devoted to a display by Meeker and Chase, all of which are on sale.”

Dutch Boats at Anchor joined three other works by Harry Chase on the walls of Scholten’s studio: The Scheldt at Antwerp (12" x 20"), Evening at Zandvoort (10" x 24"), and On the Sands, Normandie (10" x 24").

After 1880, as did most of the hundreds of works Harry Chase created in his career, Dutch Boats at Anchor simply disappeared from the public eye. Whatever became of the work? Was Scholten successful in selling the painting? If so, to whom did he sell it? Had Dutch Boats at Anchor survived into the 21st century? Another 138 years passed before the answers to those questions were revealed. As the first step in discovering the fate of the painting, the author of this detective story was confronted with a mystery that needed solving.

In April 2018, during some routine online searches investigating new leads in my research of Harry Chase, I ran across a small image of a marine painting from the collection of Tucson Museum of Art in Tucson, Arizona. At first glance, I recognized that this painting bore the hallmarks of a Harry Chase painting. And even though there were no dimensions listed at the website of the museum, there was one small clue that could be used to help identify the work: the proportions of the image indicated that its width was more than twice its height.

Querying the catalogue raisonnéI have assembled over 600 of Harry Chase’s works, I found only a handful of paintings that were twice as wide as they were high, and only one, the 13" x 32" Dutch Boats at Anchor, the painting sold to John A. Scholten in 1880, that had a title that would match the setting of the painting at the Tucson Museum of Art. Taking the pixel dimensions of the small image of the painting available online (1030 x 422), I divided 1030 by 32 (the width of Dutch Boats at Anchor), resulting in 32.1875. Multiplying that number by 13 (the height of Dutch Boats at Anchor), the result was 418.4375, very close to the second pixel dimension of 422, proving that the Tucson painting had the same proportions as Dutch Boats at Anchor. My confidence that this was indeed the same painting was growing. Moreover, 13" x 32" are very particular dimensions, and Harry Chase had only ever created one painting of that exact size. Excitement built, knowing that I might have found Dutch Boats at Anchor.

There was only one problem. The newly discovered work was attributed to William Merritt Chase, Harry Chase’s contemporary and friend, and bore the title Seascape with Boats.

But everything pointed to Harry Chase. Depicting the wide sandy shores of Holland, most likely set in Scheveningen (Harry Chase’s home while studying under Mesdag), the painting from the collection of the Tucson Museum of Art shimmered with the glow of the setting sun. Several fishing boats called “pinkies” were floating at anchor in the shallow surf after a day of catching herring. On the shore, the fisherfolk were gathered, perhaps waiting to unload the catch. This was a classic Harry Chase motif.

Imbued with the hues of the moisture-laden environment of the lowlands, the painting clearly reflected the influence of Mesdag and the so-called 19th-century “grey school” of The Hague. The work was also unmistakably impressionistic and typical of other such Dutch scenes Harry Chase painted during the same period. The clouds were rudimentarily stippled. And the figures on the beach owed their existence to a minimum of finish, with rapid brush strokes having quickly effectuated their existence. And yet, particularly with the horse pulling a two-wheeled cart, their presence was definitive. Further, with its unpretentious, nearly monochromatic scheme, the work seemed to prefigure paintings that Harry Chase began producing at the end of 1880 for participation in the yearly Salmagundi Sketch Club black and white exhibitions.

While it was readily apparent to me that the painting in the collection of the Tucson Museum of Art was indeed a work by Harry Chase, and, in fact, appeared to be the same Dutch Boats at Anchor once owned by John A. Scholten, the work was attributed in the collection to William Merritt Chase. How this dilemma came about remains unclear.

I contacted Julie Sasse, the chief curator and curator of modern and contemporary art of the Tucson Museum of Art, and Rachel Adler, collections manager and registrar, to share my findings. Upon receiving confirmation from Rachel Adler that the dimensions were indeed 13" x 32" as I had suspected, any lingering doubts that the work was by Harry Chase, and specifically Dutch Boats at Anchor, disappeared. Adler also sent me a closeup photo of the painting’s signature. This provided proof that the painting had indeed originally been signed with Harry Chase’s signature; however, the photo also revealed that the signature on the painting had been altered.

Harry Chase signature. Cleaned up from 1883 advertisement for Pettes & Leathe’s Galleries.

Advertisement for Harry Chase’s second major auction at Pettes & Leathe’s Galleries. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 23, 1883, page 8.

From top: Forged signature lower right on Dutch Boats at Anchor, 1880, in the collection of the Tucson Museum of Art; signature lower right on Fisherman off Thames Mouth, 1880; signature lower left on French Lugger Reefing Sail, 1879; and signature lower right on Dutch Fishing Boats at Anchor, 1878. That the signature on Dutch Boats at Anchor was originally Harry’s own is readily apparent by comparing it to other signatures on paintings from the same time period. There are swooping tails on the “C,” the “h,” and “e” (with part of the tail in the “e” from Dutch Boats at Anchor being obscured by inpainting). There is separation of the two parts of the “h” (second letter in Chase), and the style of the “a” and the “s” is similar. There is no doubt that Dutch Boats at Anchor once exhibited the same signature. The shape of the numbers is similar, particularly the “8” in each date. The period after the faked “M” is still the same, just outside the inpainting, as is also the case for the period after “Chase,” and also the period after the date in each example below.

Examining the closeup photo of the signature on Dutch Boats at Anchor that Adler provided revealed that there had been some fairly extensive inpainting at the bottom of the canvas, and particularly just under the signature. The “H” in Harry Chase’s signature had inexplicably been changed into an “M” reminiscent of the style in which William Merritt Chase signed his paintings as “W.M. Chase.”

It seems that whoever did the inpainting had also taken the opportunity to paint up into the “H” of Chase’s signature and change it into an “M.” But why only an “M”? If this was indeed an attempt to pass the painting off as one by William Merritt Chase, why not also the “W”?

Further evidence of the deception could be seen in that the paint of the “M” appeared to be slightly lighter in tone. Additionally, the stroke with which it was painted was noticeably thinner than the rest of the signature, another indication that it was added at a later time. One wonders what we would find under UV light. It appeared that the person who changed the signature was also quite careful to bring the inpainting up to directly under the “Chase” but not actually to touch much of it, apparently to avoid suspicion that the inpainting had also served the purpose of changing the signature. Perhaps the hope was that the obfuscation would succeed if the top of the “H” remained untouched?

How did I know the dimensions and title of the painting originally purchased by John A. Scholten, which definitively identify it? From November 1876 onward, throughout his career, Harry Chase kept a paintings logbook, “An Account of Pictures Painted and Sold by Harry Chase.” I have a copy. On pages 10 and 11, the following entry was written in Harry’s own hand: “Feb 1880, Dutch Boats at Anchor, 13 x 32, John A. Scholten, $70.00.”

From the evidence I gathered, it was clear what artist created the work held in the collection of the Tucson Museum of Art, and that it was indeed a painting by Harry Chase. The dimensions, subject matter, and inscribed date of 1880 provided confidence that this was the work entitled Dutch Boats at Anchor, originally purchased by John A. Scholten at Chase’s solo show and auction on March 23, 1880, at Pettes & Leathe’s Galleries in St. Louis, Missouri. But there was more to come.

To solidify my account of Dutch Boats at Anchor, the mystery surrounding it compelled me to trace the provenance backward from the last known owner, hoping to be able to find a trail back to John A. Scholten, which would prove unequivocally that this was the same painting.

To do so, there was initially only one clue. At the website of the Tucson Museum of Art, under “Credit Line,” was listed “In Memory of Mr. Felix W. Coste.” Assuming that Coste had been the last owner, I attempted to track him backward through time.

Promisingly, I discovered that Felix W. Coste was born in 1893 in St. Louis and had graduated from Washington University. Felix W. Coste worked for D’Arcy Advertising in St. Louis until 1934. Then he moved to New York, still with D’Arcy. Eventually, he became vice president of Coca-Cola, and then, after becoming president of Outdoor Advertising in 1958, he retired in 1960. Felix W. Coste died in Tucson in 1970. Considering the positions he had held throughout his career, Felix W. Coste was certainly affluent enough to have owned an art collection.

However, that was only the beginning of unraveling what would become a fascinating story leading me step by step back to John A. Scholten, the first owner of the painting.

Another crucial piece of the puzzle came from Rachel Adler, who shared the following: “the only provenance information we have is from a letter written by the donor, Mrs. Dorothy C. Coste (the widow of Felix W. Coste), where she mentions that it was purchased by her grandfather in St. Louis in the early 1900s or late 1800s and it has been in her family ever since.”

That was the final clue I needed to piece together the rest of the story, a story that took me back into the rarified circles of 19th-century St. Louis haute culture.

Dorothy Cramer. St. Louis Star, January 25, 1924, page 13.

Dorothy C. Coste was born Dorothy Rodel Cramer on March 27, 1903, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents were Emile Rodel Cramer and Ida Braesel. She was born into wealth. Her father was the president of the G. Cramer Dry Plate Works, which had been founded by his adoptive father. Coincidentally, she was also a graduate of the Mary Institute, an exclusive girls school in St. Louis that happened to be the same school from which Harry Chase’s daughter Rhoda Chase had graduated in 1899.

Dorothy Cramer was a St. Louis debutante during the Roaring Twenties. Her whereabouts, activities, and photographs were regularly printed in the society pages of the St. Louis newspapers.

She was a desirable match for many of the eligible society bachelors of St. Louis, and Dorothy Cramer’s engagement to James Mortimer Price, son of a wealthy St. Louisan and brother of the actor Vincent Price (yes, that Vincent Price), was announced in the society pages of the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1925. Laura Louise Price, sister of James and Vincent Price, was Dorothy Cramer’s best friend. The engagement was then broken off for unknown reasons.

In 1926 Cramer married her first husband, John Fagg Reynolds, the son of a prominent St. Louis judge. They then purportedly lived in Detroit, Michigan. Apparently, the marriage ended in divorce.

Felix Wilkins Coste and Dorothy Rodel Cramer Reynolds on their wedding day. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 25, 1935.

Dorothy Rodel Cramer Reynolds then married Felix Wilkins Coste on February 16, 1934, at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in St. Louis, Missouri. They apparently remained together until his death in Tucson in 1970. In 1969, just before Felix’s passing, Dorothy bequeathed Dutch Boats at Anchor to the Tucson Museum of Art. But how had she come into possession of the work? To answer that question, I had to go further back into St. Louis lore.

Emile Rodel Cramer. Centennial History of Missouri, De Luxe Supplement, published by S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, Chicago, 1921.

Dorothy’s father, Emile Rodel Cramer, was the son of Emile G. Rodel and Emma Rebecca Milentz. He was born in St. Louis on April 17, 1874. In December 1873, just four months before his son’s birth, Emile G. Rodel poisoned himself and died by suicide. Emma was left alone and pregnant, expecting her first child. Her future could have been quite bleak. Fortunately, there was someone in St. Louis who saw her as his life mate. He not only married the young widow, but he also adopted her son as his own, renaming him Emile Rodel Cramer.

Emma Rebecca Milentz’s second husband was the chemist and inventor Gustav Cramer, founder of G. Cramer Dry Plate Works. Through his innovations in simplifying the photographic process, Cramer became incredibly wealthy. Born in 1838 in Eschwege, Germany, Cramer had moved to St. Louis by 1859 in search of his fortune.

Gustav Cramer. Notable St. Louisans in 1900; A Portrait Gallery of Men Whose Energy and Ability Have Contributed Largely towards Making St. Louis the Commercial and Financial Metropolis of the West, Southwest and South, edited by James Cox, published by Benesch Art Publishing Co., 1900.

Gustav Cramer first sought employment in the fledgling industry of photography and became the apprentice of an up-and-coming photographer by the name of John A. Scholten—the original owner of Dutch Boats at Anchor. Cramer worked for Scholten for several years, and the men became fast friends. Cramer then struck out on his own and opened his own studio in Carondelet, but his real love was chemistry, and he continued to experiment with photographic chemicals. It was in the perfection of effective dry plates that Cramer became famous and immensely wealthy.

My investigation had finally brought me to Gustav Cramer, adoptive grandfather of Dorothy Rodel Cramer. The provenance information held by the Tucson Museum of Art indicated that its painting was “purchased by Dorothy’s grandfather in St. Louis in the early 1900s or late 1800s and it has been in her family ever since.” The fact that Gustav Cramer’s close friend John A. Scholten put Dutch Boats at Anchor up for sale in his studio in May 1880, shortly after Harry Chase’s solo show and auction, suggests that Cramer purchased the painting from Scholten around the same time.

When Gustav Cramer died in 1914, his last will and testament dictated that “All his real estate, household goods, jewelry, paintings and articles of personal property not otherwise disposed of, are left to his widow, Mrs. Emma R. Cramer.” (emphasis added).

Therefore, it can be reasonably assumed that Dutch Boats at Anchor also went to his widow. Considering its ultimate possession by Dorothy Cramer Coste and subsequent bequeathal to the Tucson Museum of Art, the painting went either to Dorothy’s father first and then to her, or directly to her from her grandmother. In any case, a clear chain of custody can be established:

• Harry Chase, 1880.
• Thence to John A. Scholten, May 23, 1880.
• Thence to Gustav Cramer, circa 1880.
• Thence to his wife, Emma R. Cramer, 1914.
• Thence to Dorothy Cramer (perhaps via her father, Emile R. Cramer), circa 1923.
• Thence to the Tucson Museum of Art, 1969.

Through this investigation, an otherwise lost work by the artist Harry Chase has been rediscovered. However, the foremost mystery surrounding Dutch Boats at Anchor will probably never be solved. Why did someone alter the signature on the painting? Was it indeed an attempt to pass the painting off as a work by William Merritt Chase? If so, then why was only the “M” added? Furthermore, the painting was apparently in the same family for nearly 90 years before going to the Tucson Museum of Art and has been in its collection for the last 49 years. Why and when would the obfuscation of the signature have taken place? In fact, the painting was owned by a family that was so affluent that they simply could have purchased a William Merritt Chase painting if they had wanted one. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the prices for his paintings began to increase dramatically. Likewise, trying to pass off the painting as a William Merritt Chase to lend more prestige to the work would also seem an unnecessarily tedious undertaking for the Cramer family. Perhaps we will never know why the signature was manipulated.

Nonetheless, Dutch Boats at Anchor has now been definitively identified. And now, with the back story of the painting having also been reconstructed, the purpose for which Dorothy Cramer Coste bequeathed it in the first place is all the better served.
Dr. Julie Sasse, chief curator of the Tucson Museum of Art, said, “The Tucson Museum of Art is pleased to learn about the proper attribution of our painting to Harry Chase. The painstaking research that Jeffrey Chace conducted on this work of art greatly increases the painting’s provenance and authenticity, and we can now properly contextualize this work for future exhibitions and research. He is to be commended for his thoroughness and insight.”

Jeffrey B. Chace, a distant cousin of Harry Chase, has intensively researched the life and work of the artist since 2004. He has built a comprehensive catalogue raisonné and is writing an authoritative biography that he hopes to have published soon. He invites readers with any paintings, photographs, letters, documents, drawings, or information regarding Harry Chase to e-mail him at <>. For more information, see (www.harrychase.org).

Originally published in the September 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest

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