By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the January 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art January 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Six years ago, as the American economy was shuddering to a near-halt, many who made, bought, and sold fine art were shuddering as well—at the thought of what the next few years might bring. Few would have ventured to predict a quick rebound. Yet in many areas of the art-auction market, especially among top-name historic artists and blue-chip contemporary western artists, the past two or three years have brought notable success.
“The current art-auction market is very healthy,” affirms Jack A. Morris Jr., founding partner in the Scottsdale Art Auction and co-owner of Morris & Whiteside Galleries in Hilton Head, SC. Major works by Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, Frank Tenney Johnson, Albert Bierstadt, and Alfred Jacob Miller continue to bring ever-higher prices, although the mid- and lower-level markets have remained relatively soft. At the 2013 Coeur d’Alene Art Auction, for example, the top lot was Frederic Remington’s CUTTING OUT PONY HERDS, which sold for $5,625,000. In large part this upward push is a result, observers say, of greater numbers of major historic artworks being removed from circulation as they enter museums and private collections, creating a rapidly dwindling supply on the secondary market.
Even among lesser-known historic western artists, exceptional paintings are causing heads to turn and bids to rise, says Bob Nelson, owner of Manitou Galleries in Santa Fe, founder and managing partner of March in Montana (in collaboration with the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction), and founder of Auction in Santa Fe. He notes that at the March in Montana auction in 2013, John Norval Marchand’s POINTING THE BEEF HERD went into bidding with an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000 and came out at $97,750.
Taos Society of Artists
When the economic downturn hit, one of the collecting categories to see the sharpest decline and a relatively slower recovery was works by the founding members of the Taos Society of Artists, perhaps because of the extraordinarily high prices these works were commanding before 2008, suggests Roxanne Hofmann, managing partner with the Jackson Hole Art Auction and partner in Trailside Galleries in Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY. As consigners and buyers have regained confidence in the market, more top-rated paintings by Taos Society artists, held back for several years, have begun to re-emerge into the market. “The Taos Founders were hit hard during the recession, especially the more prolific artists such as E.I. Couse,” agrees Mike Overby, a partner in the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction. “However, we’ve really seen them bounce back over the last two years, with Joseph Sharp in particular staging a major comeback.” Rare paintings by E.L. Blumenschein, William Herbert Dunton, Bert Phillips, and Walter Ufer are also bringing strong prices.
Occasionally, happy surprises pop up in the auction market, and an unknown New Mexico artist provided such a case at the 2012 Heritage Auction for Western and California Art. The auction house received a painting titled INDIAN TALES, TAOS, 1922 by an early 20th-century artist named Blanche Grant. “No one knew who she was, but it was an absolutely stunning painting. There was not much in the way of auction records, and we usually steer away from that,” remembers Alissa Ford, director of California Art for Heritage. The auction curators placed an estimate of $5,000 to $7,000 on the piece. It sold for $62,500. “There was a lot of bidding because it was a great painting, in the original frame, and had never been touched by restorers. It was beautiful,” Ford says.
The California Scene
Historic California art, led by Maynard Dixon in particular, is enjoying a healthy revival in the auction market. The 2013 Coeur d’Alene auction offered 11 Dixon paintings, and seven of those exceeded high estimates, Overby reports. RANCHERO OF OLD CALIFORNIA, for example, was on the block with a $20,000 to $30,000 estimate and went to the high bidder for $117,000.
The pendulum of interest in mid-20th-century Modern California art was swinging toward the high side prior to the recession, but when the recession hit, collectors turned to the “safer” market with historic works, Ford observes. Now the Modern market is rising again. Post-1950s Bay Area Figurative painters including Richard Diebenkorn and Paul Wonner and Pop artist Mel Ramos are increasingly sought out at auction, and Millard Sheets is “incredibly strong right now,” Ford says.
Feel the Heat
Among living western painters, the hands-down “hottest artist on the planet right now,” in Overby’s words, is Howard Terpning. Arizona-based Terpning—an emeritus member of the Cowboy Artists of America—has been setting records for a number of years and continues to do so. Overby remembers TELLING OF LEGENDS, estimated at $600,000 to $900,000, garnering $1,700,000 “in a shootout” at the 2013 Coeur d’Alene auction. The previous year at Scottsdale, Terp ning’s work topped his own record with $1,934,000 for CAPTURED PONIES.
Art by other highly branded Cowboy Artists of America members—among them Martin Grelle, Kenneth Riley, Tom Lovell, and Frank McCarthy—is also in demand right now, Morris says. He adds that the middle range in the CAA market is currently soft and the lower tier is weak. Other contemporary western artists in the high-bid spotlight these days include Mian Situ, Clyde Aspevig, Ken Carlson, Z.S. Liang, G. Harvey, Curt Walters, and Richard Schmid.
An Expanding Wildlife Art Market
In the auction market for wildlife art, important works by Bob Kuhn, Carl Rungius, and Friedrich Wilhelm Kuhnert consistently spur competitive bidding. “Kuhn is an artist who wasn’t affected in the least by the downturn and, if anything, keeps selling higher and higher,” Overby remarks. Hofmann, of the Jackson Hole Art Auction—which specializes in wildlife art—points to an exciting trend in recent years: a broadening of the collector base for wildlife art beyond the traditional sportsman/collector. The development holds for international as well as American buyers. It results in the placement of wildlife art in increasingly eclectic collections, Hofmann says.
Rare Finds in Historic Native Arts
Historic American Indian beadwork, pottery, basketry, and textiles are among the auction items held back by consigners after 2008 and now re-emerging on the market with higher quantity, notes Delia Sullivan, senior specialist and consignment director for American Indian Art with Heritage Auctions. Bidding levels for such items are dependent on condition, beauty, rarity, and provenance. A room-size Navajo weaving more than doubled its estimate at Auction in Santa Fe a couple of years ago, selling for $44,000. And at Heritage’s November 2013 auction, a beautiful Sioux pictorial beaded child’s shirt, inscribed as having been found on the Custer battlefield, was estimated at $30,000 to $50,000. It went home with a collector for $75,000. Meanwhile, top-name living and deceased Native artists earning premium prices in the auction market today include Fritz Scholder, Allan Houser, Charles Loloma, Dan Namingha, John Nieto, and Kevin Red Star.
The Online Auction World
Among the most dramatic changes in the auction world in recent years is the exponential increase in online access to all aspects of the business—information on artists and artworks, condition reports, catalogue viewing, and even auctions themselves, in real time. The result is well-informed collectors who can gather information directly, without having to inquire through auction personnel. It also means that more collectors are going straight to auctions to buy, whereas much of the bidding crowd in years past consisted of dealers and gallery representatives.
While auction officials and consigners understandably get excited about stratospheric bids, collectors in the middle range of approximately $10,000 to $100,000 can still find satisfaction as well. This price range yields excellent works on paper, notes Kirsty Buchanan, director for Western Art at Heritage. “It’s an under-recognized collecting niche, often overlooked because of unfounded conservation concerns in this medium,” she says. For example, a good pen-and-ink drawing by Russell can still be acquired at auction for under $100,000.
Opportunity for midlevel collectors also can be found in paintings by some of the more prolific Taos Founders, such as Couse and Sharp, whose prices have not yet risen to pre-2008 levels, says Peter Riess, executive director and vice president of the Santa Fe Art Auction, which focuses on historic western and Taos Society art. The same holds true for the California Impressionists, which Ford describes as a buyer’s market that is likely to rebound. Morris, whose auction experience reaches back to the early 1980s, advises midlevel collectors to carefully research and then invest the total amount they are prepared to spend in “the very best single piece” they can afford. Similarly, Scot Levitt, director of California and Western Paintings and Sculpture for Bonhams, points to the value of smaller or less significant works by major artists, relative to what these pieces would have brought 10 years ago. As Levitt puts it, “There are still plenty of bargains to be had.”
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