My movie this week included “Country Matters” which is a compendium of dramatized English short stories from the Edwardian times. One of them was called “The Higgler,” which is their word for a man who goes around the country with a wagon, buying small things low and reselling them somewhere else for a higher price. Eggs, produce, pans and the like. There are art higglers in Great Falls today as the CM Russell Museum benefit auction that the Ad Club puts on each year begins. Satellite shows are also open. Most people operate out of motel rooms, but some use RV’s or car trunks or even, in the case of monumental sculpture, flatbed trucks, which can be rather startling when encountered in traffic.
In the old days, by which I mean the Sixties which I suppose could be called the JKF times, the wheeler-dealers were still cruising the Eisenhower highway network to search the country for art bargains and then sell them as great treasures elsewhere. Sure enough, in those years original Russells were still being found stored in attics and chicken houses across the high prairie. One could buy an old book in a junk store and shake out an illustrated letter. Not many people got rich but some did well enough to keep going. Certainly, it’s how Dick Flood got his start.
The higgler wheeler-dealers of the last half of the twentieth century are a little thin in the ground now. Instead they use computers. But some have galleries. A few, knowing there are rumors about them and famous swindles that they made, have come to self-proclaiming their wheeler-dealer status. Others are disguised as patrons who pretend to be helping the alcoholic or improvident artists from whom they buy, later inflating their reputations. Running art through an auction is a good way to attract attention, even if quietly buying it back through a front is the main way to establish a high selling price.
We used to think of gallery owners, publishers, and other impresarios as people who knew quality plus a formidable amount of art history and who were prepared to see potential in beginners or to find quiet rural geniuses. That was back in the days when professionals, like doctors and lawyers, were seen as “professing” something and to self-monitor for ethics. Nowadays, of course, the waves of greed have transformed them into profit-meisters whose high pay makes them able to accumulate the capital to play games with people’s lives, though they really rather prefer them dead. And they like the artists to fit into a “brand” expectation on the part of the buyers.
For their part the bourgeoisie are likely to be buying to be part of the crowd, to do the “in” thing, to be able to say to their friends, “Oh, I picked up a bluhbluhbluh for a real bargain price!” Also, like high school kids, they love the party atmosphere of auctions and high brow (they think) shopping in galleries. Around here, of course, the Western art has the huge advantage of being subject matter that has been experienced by many people who then buy portrayals that remind them of their own lives. Neither buyer nor seller is likely to have studied much about art and their “eye” these days is mostly taught by movies and television.
But then, we didn’t know a lot back in the Sixties either. Ace and Bob used to muse over what made a really “good” painting. Ace kidded about how a painting on stretched canvas was worth more than one painted on canvasboard, but then there were the gimmicks of a painting by Charlie on a windowshade or a silk petticoat that belonged to winkwink. Did using a lot of different colors mean that the painting was worth more money? Was an oil painting worth more than a watercolor? Surely it was worth more than a print? (This was before giclée prints made fortunes for some artists.) Was it more valuable if an artist taught himself, thus avoiding the contamination of scholars and professors, or was it better to have gone to prestigious schools? (Which WERE they? We knew about the Famous Artists correspondence courses.)
Would it be better to own a painting that had actually appeared on a calendar? Calendars and magazines were the art most people knew and they weren’t surprised when suddenly those same people turned up as high-dollar easel painters in the Western mode. Now that so many have eyes educated by animation, a surprising number of Western artists come from Disney. Among the most skillful and accepted painters are Chinese artists, but people here still aren’t quite sure about Native American painters who paint abstractly. We don’t know how to look at them. How do we know what they’re “about?”
Sculpture is both easier and harder. Wood carving is easy, though many of the old timers used a lathe-type machine to make multiple bears and mountain goats. After all, they finished them by hand. Marble is like that, too. Bronze casting baffles people, though not many still believe that they are whittled out of metal. We’ve seen too many photos of Charlie Russell with clay or beeswax in his hands. But many still believe that the modeled product is somehow “bronzed” like electroplated baby shoes.
If you say “mold,” people see in their heads a machine, though old-fashioned French or Roman block investment is pretty much back-bending labor. Modern ceramic shell casting is far more industrial, cheaper, faster, less skill-demanding, much better suited to mass production -- natural enough since it was developed to cast parts for space-age rockets in military applications. All the little signs of excellence in casting and patining metal are harder to learn.
The three main categories of Scriver bronzes for sale might be labeled white, black and gray. The “white market” bronzes are those cast in his lifetime in his own foundry in Browning with his skilled Blackfeet crew (plus me). They were sold with a certificate of authenticity showing the limits of the edition and that was registered in a book that the Montana Historical Society refuses to search for in his estate, thus crippling estimates of value. But very few of them go through auctions anyway.
The black market bronzes are flatly illegal castings, often originating in the Flathead Valley. They are invariably ceramic shell castings and usually have lousy patinas, often looking like paint instead of the subtle depths of a true patina.
The gray market castings come from sculptures that were commissioned by entrepreneurs, a new kind of wheeler-dealer, who suggested subjects, bought them WITH the copyright, set their own edition numbers (often as high as a hundred copies) cast them through some Montana ceramic-shell foundry, and sold them through their own galleries. Now they show up at all the auctions and on eBay. When Bob died ten years ago, his will specified that all molds should be destroyed. But he didn’t own the molds that belonged to these speculators and most of them didn’t have warehouses to store them, so they remained with foundries that later dispersed. No one knows where they went then, or even whether they still exist. It’s hard to maintain even today’s durable molds in prime condition.
A whole new field of expertise has developed -- not in higgling -- but in tracking the activities of the wheeler-dealers and how they parlayed opportunism into high dollar SW galleries. (I can’t think of any who ended up in New York.) There are books, some of them autobiographical. We need some good novels. I’ll get right on it!