Western Auctions | Behind the Scenes

Bob and Charla Nelson, who annually present March in Montana and Auction in Santa Fe, explain how an auction comes together

Bob and Charla Nelson

Bob and Charla Nelson

This story was featured in the January 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art January 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!

When do you start acquiring works for an upcoming auction? We work 12 to 15 months ahead acquiring consignments. Works come in steadily throughout the year. Sometimes, we’ve acquired larger collections that give us a base of 100 to 200 pieces for each sale. Then we fill in around those pieces. Items come from individuals, collectors, dealers, corporate collections, estates, and museum de-accessions. Everything for both auctions is shipped to, photographed, catalogued, stored, and fully insured at our facility in Cheyenne, WY, until a week prior to the sale. Then we load it into trucks or trailers and transport it ourselves to the auction venue.

What are the most common reasons people consign? We call it the five D’s: death, debt, downsizing, divorce, and de-accessioning.

Are the works physically sent to you to evaluate, or do you make decisions based on photographs? We do a lot of evaluation from photos and inventory lists if the consignor provides dimensions, artist’s name, medium, condition, and provenance. If a collection is sizeable, we travel to see it in person. If we travel, we can see everything and leave people with a full liquidation plan.

What factors determine whether you accept a work on consignment? Value is the largest factor. We accept 50 to 60 percent of the items offered to us. For our sale in Great Falls, MT, we concentrate on wildlife, sporting, and western paintings and sculpture. Cowboy collectibles do well there and some Indian material, such as weavings, beadwork, quillwork, ethnographic items, and weaponry. For the sale in Santa Fe, NM, we concentrate more on western and southwestern subjects, landscapes, and sculpture. Beadwork, quillwork, ethnographic items, weavings, and weaponry do well there also.

Auction in Santa Fe

Auction in Santa Fe

How do you determine the high and 
low estimates? We research recent comparable sales at auctions and secondary markets over the past five years. We sometimes seek outside expert opinions in a particular genre if it’s a one-of-a-kind piece and there simply isn’t a direct comparable. Then, we provide what we call an “educated guesstimate.”

Do works ever have to be repaired before they’re auctioned? We require that paintings and drawings are appropriately matted and/or framed and secure in their frames. If something arrives and is not as it appeared in the photos or as presented, we reserve the right to reject it. If something arrives damaged, we notify the consignor, and if the damage is serious enough, we provide the photos necessary to file an insurance claim.

What else happens before the auction day arrives? A consignment agreement is mailed to the consignor for approval and signatures. Then the piece is tagged with a code number. Information from that agreement is entered into a master spreadsheet that contains everything needed to list the item in the printed catalog, including the estimate range, reserve, insurance value, and terms of the sale. It also contains a condition report and the information required to enter it into our auction database, offer it live over the internet, and place it on our website and other websites featuring our sale. The item is then photographed to go to the next stage—the layout of the catalog. Bottom line: auctions are a lot of work. Each one is unique and exciting in its own way. We never know quite what’s around the corner.
—Interview by Bonnie Gangelhoff


Featured in the January 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art January 2015 print issue or digital download Or subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!

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