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Western Art: Auction Market is on the Upswing

The market for Western-themed art is as vast as the high plains, and specialty auctions are leading the stampede.

This article originally appeared in the Summer issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Way Out West.”

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On May 1, in Bonhams’ auction of California and Western Paintings and Sculpture, a sleeper of a painting went for three times its estimate.

It was Southern Plains Indian Warrior, by Henry Farny, a beautifully rendered and paradoxically peaceful picture given its subject matter. That this gouache on paper by Farny, a French-born 19th-century painter of the American West, achieved a major price was surprising to the consigner—who had believed it to be a print rather than a painting—but not surprising to anyone who has been following the booming market for Western-themed art. On the other hand, the fact that a Western painting by a living artist, Howard Terpning (born 1927), recently sold for $1.9 million at Scottsdale Art Auction on March 31 may be bigger news. At the very least, the seven-figure price shows that the top works of contemporary Western art are closing the gap with the classics of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and that today’s Western artists are being seen as far more than epigones. In addition, both results demonstrate the rising role of the auction block in the Western art market. Increasingly, the best works and top prices are to be found at public sales, in particular the once-a-year specialty events such as the Scottsdale Art Auction, the Jackson Hole Art Auction, Santa Fe Art Auction and the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction.

To understand where the market for Western art is right now, it’s important to understand the history of the taste for this material. Originally, there was little or no distinction between the “Western” market and the mainstream art market. For example, the cowboy-and-Indian specialist Frederic Remington, now considered one of the top two or three Western artists of the golden age, was represented by the New York gallery Knoedler during his heyday. Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, creators of iconic images of the unspoiled 19th-century Western landscape, were firmly situated within the general American landscape tradition; in fact, Bierstadt was a member of the Luminist wing of the Hudson River School.

But over time, with the coming of modernism to America, Western art became unfashionable and in some cases even lapsed into a sort of kitsch status. That mindset persisted in many quarters for several decades. Interest began to revive around the time of the national bicentennial in 1976, when a tide of enthusiasm for American history lifted many a boat. Collectors from Western states with fortunes built mainly on oil and gas or beef cattle—such heavy hitters as William Foxley and Philip Anschutz—started spending big money on iconic works, especially ones by the “two Rs”—Remington and Charles M. Russell, illustration-oriented painters whose muscular, exciting depictions of the frontier era did much to form our mental image of it.

The next generation of artists to take the American West as their subject are those known today as the Taos Founders or the Taos School. From the turn of the 20th century until World War II, painters who settled around Taos in northern New Mexico were inspired more by the dramatic and sometimes dreamlike landscape and by American Indian culture than by the adventurous doings of the white man, whether cowboy or cavalryman. Among the major artists of this group are E. Irving Couse, known for his contemplative renderings of Indian life; Ernest L. Blumenschein, whose masterful handling of space and color is second to none among Western artists and who is really an American Post-Impressionist; W. Herbert Dunton, who specialized in wildlife (a major sub-genre that is currently very popular, both classic and contemporary); and Joseph H. Sharp, both of who took an almost documentary approach to painting the contemporary life of the Indians. Maynard Dixon was an artist who spanned the Southwestern and California schools of painting and concentrated on landscape. Perhaps because of the influence of modernism visible in their work, the Taos Founders are highly sought after today, although the best works are quite scarce. Santa Fe–based dealer Nedra Matteucci says, “As a gallery owner for over 30 years and also acquiring for my personal collection, I have seen firsthand an obvious decline in the availability of finer-quality historical Southwestern art. The importance and influence of this period and region in American art has grown among collectors and institutions alike, who now compete for a limited number of works. As a result, we have seen prices increase to unprecedented levels.”

The American West never stopped appealing to artists, and today there are many working in this vein. On the whole, their work tends to be realistic (some notable artists, such as John Clymer and Tom Lovell, came from an illustration background), traditional, even frankly nostalgic—which makes sense when one considers that the genre is rooted in history and that the landscape is often valued precisely for its power to escape or even negate the industrializing, suburbanizing change that washes over the rest of the United States. Of course, there is a plethora of styles, and some painters (for example, Ed Mell, represented by Overland Gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz.) find the angular, multicolored Western landscape to be a jumping-off point for abstraction.

Terpning stands head and shoulders above the rest. “Howard has been recognized for many years as the top living Western artist,” says Brad Richardson, co-owner of Legacy Gallery in Scottsdale and one of the partners in the Scottsdale Art Auction. “People gravitate toward the highest quality they can find.” There’s another factor at work: limited availability. “There’s the contemporary Western market, and then there’s Terpning,” observes Mike Overby, one of the partners in the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction. “The interest in his work in the last two or three years is just phenomenal. He is far and away the bluest of the blue-chip. He only does three or four works a year. There’s such a trickle of supply and so many people who want them.” Harvey is more prolific than Terpning and definitely has a cult following; his works are eagerly snapped up. “Year in and year out, we have as much action on G. Harvey as on any artist in the auction,” says Richardson, “and we also will sell his work for above estimate as much as any artist except for Terpning. Our phone lines just fill up.” Other major names among the current crop are William Acheff, Martin Grelle and the wildlife specialist Bob Kuhn.

The growing importance of the auction market for Western art, and the corresponding increase in the number of specialty auctions, is due to several converging factors. As a partner in Coeur d’Alene the progenitor of them all and now in its 27th year (upcoming auction to be held on July 21 at the Silver Legacy Resort in Reno, Nev.), Overby is in a position to know. “Most sales are event-driven,” he says, explaining that an event could mean an auction, a selling show sponsored by a museum (a lively sub-genre in the Western marketplace), or, for a dealer, the arrival of a major, scarce artwork into inventory. “If I have a great painting,” he says, “I could sell it to 10 people by the end of the day.” Overby used to be a dealer but sold his gallery in 2006. Most of the other specialty auctioneers are also active as dealers in a gallery setting. Jackson Hole Art Auction (next auction September 15) is a partnership between Trailside Gallery of Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Scottsdale and Gerald Peters Gallery of Santa Fe. Scottsdale Art Auction (next auction on April 6, 2013) is a joint venture of Legacy Gallery, J.N. Bartfield of New York and Morris & Whiteside Galleries of Hilton Head Island, S.C. And the Santa Fe Art Auction (taking place on November 17) is produced by Gerald Peters Gallery and focuses more on Southwestern material.

Coeur d’Alene’s auctions are truly “events,” with a convivial atmosphere, plenty of Western local color and the famous “yippers,” auction-room spotters who occasionally break into cowboy calls to spur on bidders. “People like auctions because they’re a fun time, a great show,” says Overby. Richardson agrees: “Overall, I think people enjoy the action. There’s a certain amount of excitement, the adrenalin pumps a little bit.” In addition, he points out, price transparency is also a factor, as in the art market in general. “Obviously there’s a certain amount of comfort in having an underbidder, in thinking, ‘I’m only paying a little more than the other guy.’”

The tight focus of the specialty Western-and-wildlife auction has been a source of strength for them, in terms of access to the material as well as access to the buyers. We’re more engaged in the marketplace than Christie’s or Sotheby’s is,” says Richardson. “We’re meeting the customer before they even get to Christie’s or Sotheby’s.” The sales are generally annual, so the auctioneers spend an entire year gathering top-quality material. Roxanne Hofmann of Trailside Galleries, a partner in the Jackson Hole Art Auction, says, “One of the advantages of having one sale a year is that we have a vetting committee that is committed to giving our collectors the best of what we can offer. We’re limited to a couple hundred lots and work on it very hard all year long.” The auction, which is in its sixth year, is timed to coincide with the Fall Arts Festival in Jackson, which features multiple gallery shows and an exhibition at the National Wildlife Art Museum (wildlife art is a particular focus of the auction). “We have become kind of a destination auction,” says Hofmann, who notes that last year there were more bidders in the room (as opposed to on the phone lines) than at previous sales.

Of course, the non-specialist auction houses still get plenty of good material—witness Bonhams’ recent offering of the Farny. Bonhams’ expert Scot Levitt explains that the auction house groups Western painting with California painting, noting there is a certain amount of overlap between the categories, citing Maynard Dixon, Edgar Payne and Franz Bischoff as examples. Bonhams’ next sale in the category is August 7, and it will feature a Couse titled The River Bank, estimated at $150,000–250,000. Heritage Auctions in Dallas also deals in Western painting. Brian Roughton, director of American and European art at Heritage, says that the auction house has received a major consignment of Western paintings that will be offered in its November Signature California and Western Paintings sale. Among them are works by Russell, Payne, Dunton, Frank Tenney Johnson, Taos artist E. Martin Hennings and—Howard Terpning. In the Western category, Heritage got attention last October for setting a world auction record of $1.2 million for W.R. Leigh’s 1932 painting Home, Sweet Home.

At the moment, the state of the Western art market in many ways parallels that of the general art market. Demand and prices for the best and rarest works are strong, while the middle market is still suffering in the wake of the downturn four years ago. “The Western market is definitely on the upswing compared to 2009 and 2010, which was the low point,” says Overby. In his view, the problem wasn’t a lack of money on the part of buyers but a lack of consignments due to uncertainty about price levels. Consequently, he says, “there was a lot of pent-up selling demand” that caused a recovery in Coeur d’Alene’s 2011 auction.

The growing interest in classic and contemporary Western painting indicates that the taste for this kind of work is widespread. Galleries like Trailside, Legacy, Bartfield and Peters have been cultivating it and nourishing it for decades now, and many of the dealers see regional factors as very important to the market. “A lot of people have felt that Western art’s popularity would diminish as the generation that grew up on pulp novels and Western films matured and stopped buying and died off,” says Richardson. “But I think there will still be a strong market for it, because when people go out to the West, buy a place in Jackson Hole or Vail and fall in love with it, they want to be surrounded by it in the form of paintings.” While Richardson views the matter in terms of an updated version of the classic American story of Western expansion, Hofmann sees significant interest from outside the region and even overseas, which is particularly noteworthy in light of the longstanding disregard of pre-modernist American painting in Europe. “The market is much broader than it was three years ago,” she notes. “Last year we had two people who bid from Russia. There have also been bidders from South America and Switzerland. It’s great that American paintings and sculpture are attracting worldwide interest.”

Michael Frost of Bartfield, a partner in the Scottsdale Art Auction who is based in New York, says, “We’ve sold numerous Remingtons and Russells to Eastern buyers in the last few years. There are major new collectors in the market East of the Mississippi.” Perhaps collectors in both regions of the country can agree with Richardson that “the East is beautiful, but the West is exciting.”

Author: John Dorfman | Publish Date: August 2012

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