Missouri History Museum buys Dunham portrait.

ST. LOUIS POST DISPATCH 03/13/2008 - The Missouri History Museum has shopped victoriously.

Dunham Painting By Diane Toroian KeaggyAmong the stained baby clothes and frayed baseball cards up for auction on eBay, curator Jacqueline K. Dace discovered a rare oil portrait of Katherine Dunham, the dancer and anthropologist who lived in East St. Louis. Dace, an expert on all things Dunham, never knew the painting existed. Neither did Dunham's family. But 2,000 miles away in antique shop in Ventura, Calif., the 50- by 40-inch painting by renowned German artist Werner Philipp waited for a buyer.

"We're used to going into basements and storage rooms," said 16-year veteran Dace, who currently manages the museum's African-American collections. "We put on our tennis shoes and dig. That's where we find our hidden gems. But now there is the Internet. Today, you never know where you will find the next treasure."

Philipp painted Dunham in 1943, the same year the 34-year-old Dunham appeared in the ground-breaking film "Stormy Weather." Philipp worked in San Francisco and was known for his landscapes and murals, but also had a passion for painting beautiful female artists. He and Dunham were friends. The portrait is untitled; but Dace calls it, "After the Dance." Dunham wears a brightly striped peasant blouse off one shoulder with her hair pulled back in a green scarf.

"I was immediately struck by it's vividness — of course, she was such a vivid person — but at the same time it's a serene pose," Dace said. "It gives the impression she's worked at her dance and this is a moment of reflection."

The painting will serve as the centerpiece of the Missouri History Museum exhibit "Katherine Dunham: Beyond the Dance," which opens Nov. 2 and runs through February 2010. The exhibit will showcase Dunham's costumes, documents and personal possessions, and explore her role as an anthropologist, civil rights leader and dance innovator. Dunham donated her collection to the museum before her death two years ago.

Gifts like Dunham's make up the vast majority of the Missouri History Museum's enormous collection. Only rarely will the museum purchase an object. This is one such case. The museum used $12,500 from a fund designated specifically for artwork. The fund never has been tapped before in its seven-year history.

"I knew Katherine Dunham when she was older; she was a friend of mine," said Missouri Historical Society president Robert Archibald. "This portrait does an amazing job of capturing her. It's her eyes and her smile. Whether you were looking at her at 30 or 90, that never changed."

Dace still hopes to unravel the mystery of the painting's past. She learned it belonged to a women named Patricia March-Greer, but knows nothing about her, her connection to Dunham or how she displayed the work. A New York auction house tried but failed to find a buyer. The Phantom Bookshop, which specializes in rare science fiction novels, then posted the portrait on eBay. The sellers recognized the painting's value, yet took no special steps to protect the work. Calls to the bookstore were not returned.

"It was hung on the wall with a flimsy wire connector," recalled Dace. "When the seller was taking it off, I was holding my breath because I didn't want him to bump into anything. There is a way we handle art and a way antique shops handle art. We, for instance, had it shipped by an art shipper. They wanted to ship it via UPS. When it came home, it was like, 'You made it.' And it looks to me she is even more at rest because she is at a place where she can feel safe." MORE Read more stories from the paper's A&E section and see an index of the last two weeks

dkeaggy@post-dispatch.com | 314-340-8343