The Wall Street Journal

“Lovers of Western Art Stampede to Reno”
By Ann E. Berman

Sotheby’s or Christie’s would have been thrilled to sell the dramatic, atmospheric painting Mists in the Yellowstone, by the American Thomas Moran (1837-1926), considered the premier artist of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, but nobody asked them. When the painting sold last Saturday for $4.9 million–almost double the previous auction record for the artist, and way above its $2 million-$3 million estimate–it was at the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction in the grand ballroom of the Silver Legacy Resort and Casino, one floor below a sea of beeping, flashing slot machines. Las Vegas’s Bellagio, it seems, is not Nevada’s only art attraction: Reno is home to the nation’s biggest and most successful auction of Western art. Every July, hundreds of well-heeled collectors from Maine to Hawaii flock here and spend millions of dollars on important works by Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, and other celebrated painters of the Old West.

Any one of them will be glad to tell you why these works are here instead of at some fancy-pants auction house in Manhattan. “Collectors of Western art don’t think it gets the respect it deserves back East,” says Dr. Larry Peterson, a Lake Oswego, Ore., dermatologist, and author of books on the work of Russell. “And they just feel more comfortable dealing with Westerners.”

This group feels right at home with Bob Drummond of Hayden, Idaho, Stuart Johnson of Kalispell, Mont., and Peter Stremmel of Reno–the trio of art dealers who founded the sale in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in 1984. Described by colleagues and clients alike as “a bunch of straight shooters,” they run a tight ship. Estimates and fees are low, and the quality of art is high.

Mr. Drummond specializes in “deceased artists,” the market’s term for the classic Cowboy and Indian scenes, Taos School paintings, and panoramic landscapes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mr. Johnson represents blue-chip contemporary painters like Howard Terpning whose nostalgic, evocative paintings of 19th-century Native American life can bring $300,000–a fair chunk of change for an artist whose work would be dismissed as “calendar art” by devotees of the Whitney Biennial. Mr. Stremmel is the auctioneer whose easy banter sends them all home. Under the threesome’s stewardship the sale grew steadily in size and importance, outgrowing its Idaho home in 1999, and relocating to the less picturesque, but better-equipped precincts of Reno. “The year 42 private jets tried to fly in, and [the airport] had to divert some to Spokane because there wasn’t room, it was time to go,” says Mr. Drummond.

This year, most of the Lears and Hawkers touched down on Friday. Coeur d’Alene is both a serious buying venue and a two-day party designed to attract out-of-towners and keep them happy until the auction starts on Saturday afternoon. The Friday-night cocktail and buffet, Saturday-morning lecture on painting conservation, and the lunch before the sale were all well attended. Men in cowboy hats and Hawaiian shirts swigged deeply from beer bottles (the bar opens on Friday and stays open until the end of the sale) as they circled the displays of 283 paintings, prints and sculptures. The women accompanying them wore colorful slacks and chunky turquoise jewelry. One well-endowed matron sported a skimpy T-shirt emblazoned with the suggestion “Buy Me Something.”

It’s not a group that screams “money,” but looks can be deceiving. “You have no idea how much wealth is in this room,” sighed one dealer, noting that, for many in the crowd, the second or third house is a ranch in Montana waiting to be filled with paintings that reflect the history and the landscape of the West.

They had come to the right place, as this year’s catalogue bulged with goodies. The Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, was selling nine works from its bottomless Western collection, including Mists of the Yellowstone. In addition, there were colorful scenes of Indian life painted in Taos, N.M., in the early 20th century; watercolors by Frederic Remington; and animal studies by the great wildlife painter Carl Rungius. Besides the museum, many of the lots had come from private collections and estates.

By sale time on Saturday, 700 eager bidders were shifting impatiently in their seats as the mayor of Reno welcomed them “to the biggest little city in the world.” The bids began to pop as soon as the auctioneer opened his mouth, unleashing a flurry of activity more familiar to sports fans than art collectors. Mr. Stremmel’s patter was nearly drowned out by Coeur d’Alene employees familiarly known as “Yippers”–a corps of young, male, spotter-cheerleaders positioned around the salesroom who signaled every bid by standing near its source and uttering a series of loud, staccato cries of “Yip! Yip! Yip!” while jumping high in the air and triumphantly pumping their fists. If a bidder hesitated, the yipper moved in closer and made frantic beckoning gestures and held the bidder’s gaze until he anted up.

The yippers went crazy when Mr. Stremmel got to the Amon Carter’s Squaw Winter, a rare painting of a Montana Indian settlement by Taos artist Joseph H. Sharp. Estimated at $250,000-$450,000, it finally sold to a client of Denver dealer Steve Good for a record $1.06 million. They revved up again when Navajo Lookout/Surveying the Plains by Russell, owned by the same family since 1921, came on the block at $400,000-$600,000. Sotheby’s Client Services team (which comes to Coeur d’Alene every year to bid on Western works its customers can’t get in its own sales) tried to buy this one, but it sold to Gerald Peters, a dealer with galleries in New York and Santa Fe, N.M., for $616,000. A collector from Palm Desert, Calif., with a ranch in Montana, caused an extended spasm of yipping when he paid $95,000 for Meadow With Cattle a mountain landscape by Victor Higgins expected to sell for only $20,000-$30,000. In a catalogue entry, Mr. Terpning reminded collectors that the Indians depicted in his painting The Guardian, “were not always at battle, but raised children, made love, cooked meals, hunted buffalo.” Goosed by the yippers, bidders pushed the price to $246,400, near the top of its estimate.

Five long, loud hours later, it was all over, with 99.3% of the works having sold, many far above estimate. And the sale had racked up a total of $18 million–a new record. Outside the salesroom, the bar was finally closed, but people still lingered, high on adrenalin and Western camaraderie. The old hands wanted to know what the Eastern reporter thought of the Coeur d’Alene. It was sure a lot of fun now, wasn’t it? It sure was. Natty in a well-tailored blue blazer, founder Stuart Johnson accepted my congratulations and tipped an imaginary hat. “Shucks, ma’am,” He said, without a trace of a Western accent. “Yippee-yi-ki-yay.”

Selected Articles

The following are a selection of features and articles that have been written about the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction.

The Wall Street Journal The New York Times CBS News Forbes Western Art Collector Antiques and the Arts Weekly Maine Antique Digest Art & Antiques Western Art & Architecture American Fine Art Magazine Sporting Classics Magazine Art+Auction Blouin Artinfo Town & Country ARTnews