The “Cowboy Art” auction season is beginning with the posting of the CM Russell Auction in Great Falls. The auction itself is on the weekend nearest Russell’s birthday, this year March 20, 21 and 22. The website is www.cmrauction.com. I’ll be participating in the Autograph Party on Saturday from 10:30 AM to 11:30 AM.
The main auction is at the Heritage Inn and occupies many of the rooms that are normally rented overnight. For this event the usual furniture is removed and artists bring set-ups to make the rooms into mini-galleries.
There is a second auction at a different motel, plus a half-dozen additional spin-offs. These smaller events are less predictable and not confined to art. They may include books, Indian artifacts, or cowboy gear. Sometimes they are the work of an artist who is present and sometimes they are of dubious provenance. The actual CMR auction is a collection of art juried by experts and there are reliable protocols, but the smaller entrepreneurs may be floaters from out-of-state. Montana art law is nearly nonexistent.
www.askart.com sent me a tip-link to the Scriver bronzes in the upcoming Ad Club official CMR Auction:
At the Scriver location on that website are many requests to know “how much this piece is worth,” as though one were able to determine such a thing, esp. in the art world. A piece of art is worth what someone will pay for it at the moment it is for sale. Much depends on the times, the event, the attendance, and who went to the bathroom at just the wrong moment. Putting those variables aside, here are some thoughts to consider when deciding whether to buy a Scriver bronze.
1. What year was it actually created (rather than cast)? Bob’s career falls roughly into three parts:
A. The Fifties when he was making tourist trinkets from hydrocal (very hard plaster) and painting them with lacquer. Hundreds of these were hand-produced in Browning and mostly sold for less than ten dollars. Some of them have been posthumously cast in bronze, since they have the Scriver name on them, but they are not Great Art and their value is mostly as a novelty.
B. From the mid-Fifties to the mid-Seventies is the period when Bob’s work was at its peak. The sculptures themselves ARE fine work, heart-felt, and often cast in the Bighorn Foundry by Bob, myself, and the Blackfeet crew. Bob liked to work in series, so these works include the Blackfeet series and the rodeo series plus many, many animals. These are the pieces of most value, but they rarely show up at auctions. The people who bought them are reluctant to let them go, and if they do, they usually move quietly through prestige galleries. As Bob’s reputation slowly grows back after damage at the end of his life, these are the bronzes of investment quality.
C. Later in Bob’s life his health prevented him from bronze casting. He began to use small ceramic-shell foundries and cast larger editions. Sometimes he would create a piece at someone’s suggestion and sell them the right to cast (the copyright). Quality control on these castings was much lower, the pieces themselves were smaller, and many copies were made in each edition. They were done quickly in order to pay the bills. Though they are popular favorites, usually story-based, they are generally what travels the auction circuit, around and around, in search of profit.
In addition there are an increasing number of posthumous and black market castings, some with stories about how Bob “gave me the wax.” The ones I have seen have bad patinas, esp. one that Arrowhead used that makes the bronze look like plastic or the ones that are multi-colored: red shirts, blue jeans, and so on. (Arrowhead is no longer in business.)
I’ve seen figures of Ace, Charlie Russell, and a nude of Bob’s second wife, Jeanette, which have probably been recast from the early hydrocal versions that Bob sold at the beginning of the Sixties. The people who are selling them may be assuming that they are out of copyright, which they would have been by old rules, but a new law has been passed that makes them still illegal. However there is no responsible party able or willing to prosecute. Bob’s lawyer was ignorant on the subject (and others).
The advantage of casting a bronze from a hydrocal is that the main way to discover a recasting is by comparing an original with the knock-off, which will be slightly smaller because metal shrinks when it cools. Also, detail may be blurred. A mold from a hydrocal will be indistinguishable unless it is badly done. For a while there was an artist attached to a major institution who would sit and copy with his eyeball the major sculptures of the collection. He usually made the size markedly different, hoping that this would put the copy out of copyright. He’s had to stop.
Since that time, technology is so incredibly resourceful that machinery exists to make a perfect copy of a living human model by using lasers and computers. This factor has been around for a while, but not so technological. Rodin’s Age of Bronze was so beautifully accurate that the sculptor was accused of simply making a mold of his model. Also, SE Asian craftsmen have become very adept at eyeball copies, esp. garden sculptures which may be offered in fiberglas. The only REAL way to detect copies is through provenance, tracing the bronze from casting through all subsequent owners.
Much Western art around Montana has been subsidized by people who make enough money to have an excess to invest. Unfortunately, they rarely have the time and interest to develop their aesthetic or historical faculties, so their interest is not always a good indicator of long-term value. Most of them judge art by how much it reminds them of Charlie Russell’s work. If you are of that inclination, the auction in Great Falls will give you the opportunity to look at a major museum collection, well-presented in that the viewer can see the work arranged to show Charlie’s development as an artist.
If you are planning to bid for art, do your homework, don’t risk more than you can lose, and buy what you really love. Those have always been the rules for a prudent person. Aside from that, the festival atmosphere of the show is often its own reward!