I’ve been known to refer to the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel, by which I mean the loose network of galleries, institutions, dealers, slick magazines, auctions and, of course, actual cowboy artists who turn out an avalanche of work, not always about cowboys but always in the West. Landscape art, Native American art, coastal art (both California and Pacific Northwest) tend to separate themselves out. But cowboy and Indian artifacts are often associated, if only because the artists themselves buy them to use in paintings. The other thing the artists buy, without talking about it, is old-time glass negatives of authentic scenes in the West taken by roving photographers with dark rooms in converted wagons. Often these early photos are copied exactly, but not attributed.
What makes dealers in Western art a “cartel”? This is from Wikipedia: A cartel is a formal (explicit) agreement among firms. Cartels usually occur in an oligopolistic industry, where there are a small number of sellers and usually involve homogeneous products. Cartel members may agree on such matters as price fixing, total industry output, market shares, allocation of customers, allocation of territories, bid rigging, establishment of common sales agencies, and the division of profits or combination of these. The aim of such collusion is to increase individual member's profits by reducing competition. Competition laws forbid cartels. Identifying and breaking up cartels is an important part of the competition policy in most countries, although proving the existence of a cartel is rarely easy, as firms are usually not so careless as to put agreements to collude on paper.
It seems easy to understand that even so innocent an organization as the Cowboy Artists of America is a kind of cartel -- an ARTel, if you like. People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776. By grouping themselves, and particularly by affiliating with the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, an affiliation that broke when Dean Krakel began to try to direct the group, the CAA became a strong advantage. Belonging to this group gave a cowboy artist assurance of first class exhibits, friendships with people who had been in the business a long time, access to the A-list of customers and a certain floor on their prices. The original purpose was friendship and support, but those original founders are all dead now.
Historical museums, which often include art and paraphenalia collections, also form a loose network of professionals who guide their boards to decisions about acquisition and de-accessing -- that is, the buying and selling of materials. Even art boards are notoriously naive and historical society boards are usually drawn from lay people with no formal background in history. Since professional directors “curate” each other’s collections and write books about them, the circle becomes rather tight, even tighter when they control key publishers. Most ordinary collectors are blithely unaware of such arrangements, though key people are part of the cartel. They cannot be named without tripping a lawsuit.
Outside the official or covert circle (since cartels are not legally any more respectable than predatory money-lending) is another shadow group, MUCH more secretive, not a cartel but in symbiosis with them. At one time they were “boot-leggers,” a term which refers to what is sold out of the “boot” or trunk of a car -- often liquor, but sometimes other illicit or semi-respectable materials: art that MIGHT be by Charlie Russell, Indian artifacts that were PROBABLY acquired by legal means, old-time paraphenalia sucked up from tiny municipal museums or private collections.
In the Sixties they stopped at the Scriver Studio all the time, hoping for a little action. Sometimes Bob traded something -- he was a fur buyer and the whole business of dickering over price appealed to him. He particularly liked to trade sculpture for paraphenalia. Ace Powell always had something to trade. A few of these roving dealers were relatively honest, many were occasionally honest, and some liked making a profit off someone unawares more than anything else. They were usually male, sometimes gay which gave them a motive for staying on the move, and shuttled far and wide around the West. Because there was no Internet yet, they were human eBays, driving on cheap gas and living in cheap hotels. The advantage was that people didn’t find out what they’d really acquired or lost until quite a while later when maybe a more convincing and certified expert stopped through.
In recent years a few of these people have been caught. John Flaherty, who sold Bob the gun collections and antique mountie uniform collection which were included in the so-called “million-dollar Scriver artifact collection”, blundered when he tried to sell Sun Dance Natoas headdresses to the grandsons of the proper owners, who recognized them, and he compounded the error because he had transported a boy across the Canadian border for purposes hard to explain. He was arrested on re-entry to the US and I’m told he died in jail.
This is not unlike the LA gallery that tried to sell a Seltzer painting as a Russell original and was tripped up when Seltzer’s grandson identified it properly, documenting with his archives. Brazenly, they tried to force the grandson, also an artist, to identify the painting incorrectly by suing him for the loss of value. The difference was exactly a zero added to the price -- from $10,000 to $100,000. The painting had been sold and resold several times between unknown parties, one of whom had neatly cut off the bottom of the painting containing Seltzer’s signature.
The most recent coyote is James Lyman Brubaker who has pled guilty in federal court. He is in jail until September 15, when he will be sentenced. His crime was quite literally “cutting edge.” He was razoring historical maps and illustrations out of valuable books in libraries and selling them on eBay, the modern way to bootleg. “BOOKlegging,” you might say. But he is well-known around the Blackfeet as someone to whom one can fence or sell dubiously acquired artifacts, some of which were found in his home in Great Falls.
There are more of these shadow coyotes out there, but they are aging. When the Russell Auction happens in March, another motel sponsors rooms where many of these folks quietly sell both what is spread out on desks and beds and what is perhaps still in a suitcase until the buyer is confirmed as discrete. Many collectors now find it easier to cruise auctions on the Internet through digital catalogues and make their bids via telephone or text messaging. Occasionally, I get requests from purchasers to visit a pre-auction art work and give an opinion about its authenticity, since the actual buyer can’t see the physical object well-enough in the catalogue. Not even the back of a painting, which is often revelatory.
It’s a frontier phenomenon. The West has always been pawnshop heaven, a part of the world where people spend big when they have money, and take a loss when they have to -- which happens rather often in the West. It’s part of the on-going gambling game, the big Stick Game or Hand Game that Native peoples have always played. (Poker was more popular in cowboy saloons.) But librarians don’t like it one bit and historians shouldn’t either.