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John McCracken, "Painting #6," 1973 | Estimate: $15,000–$20,000 — Sold: $237,000 Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LA MA)

Auction Block: On the Level

Sales of Western art hold steady in 2015

Written by Laura Zuckerman  
December 2015 | January 2016


Shows and sales showed stability in the last quarter of 2015 despite a few jitters tied to falling oil prices and signs of uncertainty around the global economy.

The principle in play for much of the year held true at the end of it: Stable pricing amid periodic upticks for paintings, sculptures and other Western works reassured sale organizers as well as collectors. Both sales and sentiments that emerged in 2015 bode well for 2016 auctions and for the Western art market overall.

A feature of the market that has been evident in good economic times and in bad is that solid works — those by established artists and representing themes that gave them standing — continue to command solid prices. Collectors of the genre tend to exhibit rational exuberance. Western art auctions and buyers in 2015 avoided inflating prices and inducing crazy highs, which can only bring daunting lows. 

And that habit of steadiness, as the poet said, has made all the difference.


Los Angeles Modern Auctions, October 11, 2015


LAMA’s Modern Art & Design Auction in Los Angeles marked the sale — and soaring price — of an exclusive resin work by light and space artist John McCracken, with Five Paintings III realizing $275,000, more than twice the pre-sale high estimate of $120,000.

It was the first time the resin work, created in 1974, had been made available to the auction market and the piece drew intense bidding from local, national and international collectors, according to LAMA. The late contemporary artist from California was the darling of collectors at the October 11 sale, commanding $237,000 for Painting #6, estimated to go for $15,000 to $20,000.

The auction, which brought $4.1 million and sold 122 percent of the 477 lots by value, set two new world auction records for artists Mary Corse and Southern California Modernist June Harwood. A prismatic painting by Corse, White Light Painting, fetched $87,500, to set a new auction record. A 1963 work by Harwood — Untitled (from the Silver Series) — realized $45,000. The sum exceeded the artist’s previous record set by LAMA less than five months earlier. 

A signature work, Up Back, by celebrated California-trained ceramic artist, Ken Price, brought $168,750 at the auction, and Ed Ruscha’s Hollywood garnered $137,500, compared with pre-sale estimates ranging from $75,000 to $100,000. The screen-print — from an edition of 100 — of the iconic and eponymous sign draped across a Los Angeles hillside was produced in 1968 by Ruscha, an artist known for his sangfroid style. 

Venice Beach sculptor De Wain Valentine’s Disk Purple, a tabletop cast-resin work, realized $37,500 at LAMA’s fall sale, with the price three times its estimate and a record for that kind of composition. Valentine’s self-designed material of polyester resin placed him at the vanguard of the so-called Finish Fetish art movement of the 1960s and his versatility with the manmade medium was a kind of homage to industrial ingenuity and technological advancement.


Sotheby’s American Paintings, Drawings & Sculpture, October 2, 2015


The Sotheby’s sale of paintings and other works by American artists tallied more than $3.8 million for more than 150 offerings, and was led by the sale of an oil by 19th-century artist George Inness.

Perugia, the 1872 landscape by Inness, a Hudson River School devotee who favored vast nature scenes, brought a hammer price of $150,000, which compares to a pre-sale estimate ranging from $30,000 to $50,000. It was one of several pieces, including a restful winter scene by William Mason Brown, which realized sums far higher than estimates during the two-session auction in New York. Brown’s A Walk in Winter, painted between 1828 and 1898, fetched $23,750, including buyer’s premium, or nearly three times its top estimate.

Thomas Moran’s A Path Through the Woods, a dreamy composition of trees and grasses in varying shades of green, brought $62,500, slightly above its top estimate of $60,000. The piece was sold by a private collector to benefit an unnamed American museum.

A sprightly sporting scene by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait fetched $40,000, including buyer’s premium, falling in between the low estimate of $30,000 and high of $50,000 for the 1886 oil.


Buffalo Bill Art Show and Sale, September 25 – 26, 2015


Hundreds gathered in Cody, Wyoming, to mark the two-day art extravaganza aimed at collectors and visitors. The show produced by the Cody County Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, generated $883,396 in total sales from the weekend event. Highlights included a live auction and dinner on Friday, September 25, and the quick draw the following day.

The event elicits a special kind of excitement among collectors for featuring original works created for the auction and during the quick draw. Art show director Kathy Thompson said officials came to this year’s event hopeful that signs of economic uncertainty — including low oil prices — would not dampen the enthusiasm of attendees. Instead, collectors and art admirers appeared to thrive in an environment in Cody that provides both buying and educational opportunities.

The event offered lectures that included a curator-historian providing guidance on how to begin building a collection on a modest budget, and art and sculpting classes (the latter entitled “Play in the Clay” and led by sculptor Jeffrey Rudolph).

Thompson said she was pleased with the outcome of this year’s show, which saw several works — including a stunning work by artist Dustin Van Wechel — fetch sums far above their estimates.

“I am truly thankful for all of the artists, patrons, staff and hundreds of volunteers who made this year’s show a success,” she said. “It was great to see such positive energy from all of our artists and patrons, and it is always a great reunion for guests and artists in our hospitable town in the West.”

Van Wechel’s Right of Way brought $21,000, compared with a retail of $6,500, and sparked a veritable bidding frenzy, she said.

“It spoke to people,” Thompson said of the painting by the former advertising executive depicting a moose and calf along streambanks lined with gold-tipped grasses. On display for would-be bidders, the work “jumped off the wall,” she said, adding, “It so captured autumn, that gold, the day’s glow … people had that experience, that feeling of … ‘wow.’”

Rising artist Dolan Geiman’s offering for the sale included a mixed-media portrait of a Native American in ornate headdress, Poet of the Plains, that brought $19,000. It was the second-highest-selling piece, sandwiched between Right of Way and All Hell Broke Loose and the Cattle Ran, a painting by Colorado native Michael Ome Untiedt that — surprisingly and successfully — combines the mood of a nocturne with the daytime action of a traditional Western work.

Premier contemporary Western artist Nancy Cawdrey, classically trained and color-inclined, was the top seller at the quick draw, with Big Momma, at $6,500. Clive Tyler’s Winter Creek at Heart Mountain realized $4,750 at that event.

The Premier Platinum Award for $20,000 went to Van Wechel for Right of Way; the Wells Fargo Gold Award for $10,000 to Ralph Oberg for his painting, Shadows of Their Former Selves; and Dennis Ziemienski’s painting, Tall Drink of Water, won the William E. Weiss Purchase Award and was bought by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West for its permanent collection.

The center receives 60 percent of the net proceeds from the show and sale and the local chamber retains 40 percent. Artists receive 70 percent of their selling prices at the live auction and half of the selling prices from the quick draw.


Jackson Hole Art Auction, September 18 – 19, 2015


Artist Jenness Cortez realized a world record for one of her works, Four American Visionaries, which fetched $128,700 on September 19 during the second day of sales tied to the Jackson Hole Art Auction.

The expansive acrylic excited significant attention while on display during the summer at a Trailside Galleries showroom, a showing that led during the September 19 sale to “more than one active bidder on the piece,” said Jill Callahan, auction coordinator.

“There was quite a bit of discussion about the painting, which led to quite a bit of interest,” she said.

The painting is an homage to the fathers of Western art — Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, according to the artist. On display inside a painting that appears on the surface to be an artfully arranged interior room is a Yosemite scene by Bierstadt hanging above a couch, photographs of that and other masters placed subtly on side tables, Remington’s best-known bronze, The Bronc Buster, placed beneath an additional Bierstadt, and a Grand Canyon scene by Moran hung demurely behind a table lamp.

Cortez said in text accompanying an image of the painting in the auction’s catalogue that she chose to pay tribute to the four giants of Western art because they were responsible for shaping both the historical and popular view of the U.S. West.

“Today, everyone who admires Western art, and every artist who has made contributions to its legacy, owes a debt of gratitude to these four far-sighted visionaries,” she said.

The painting was among the Top Tier entries for the auction, considered a highlight of the annual — and celebrated — Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival. The juried competition known as Top Tier is a special feature begun last year that invites a select group of contemporary artists to submit entries to be judged by expert curators.

Z.S. Liang’s The Holy Rattle, depicting a battle among Native American tribes over buffalo hunting grounds, was selected for special merit, constituting a $10,000 cash prize to the artist, and the painting sold for $111,150.

A Bierstadt depicting Wyoming’s Wind River Range fetched $800,000 at the auction, and a masterful painting by wildlife artist Carl Rungius of the West’s iconic, hump-shouldered bruin — Grizzly Bear — sold for a solid $269,100. Howard Terpning’s Good Medicine brought $228,150 and G. Harvey’s Hope of the Confederacy went for $263,250.

Two works by the late, great wildlife artist Bob Kuhn, Cheetahs on a Termite Hill and Winter Browse Mule Deer fetched $204,750 and $87,750 respectively during the two-day auction that garnered a total of $6.5 million in sales and brought a sell-through rate of 81 percent, said Callahan.


Western Design Conference, September 10 – 13, 2015


More than 1,500 guests, visitors and locals assembled at Snow King Center in Jackson, Wyoming, the evening of Thursday, September 10, for an opening preview party and fashion show tied to a four-day extravaganza of furniture, clothing, home décor and jewelry offered by top artists and designers.

The Western Design Conference bills itself as a unique event in that artists receive 100 percent of sales. Conference organizers said artists this year reported brisk sales and crowds that numbered above 3,000.

“Without question, Western Design Conference was the best thing I have ever done for my business … best thing ever,” furniture maker Robert Seliger said in a statement. Seliger, of Seliger Furniture, was named best artist in woodworking at a show that awards in excess of $19,000 annually for excellence in design.

The buzz that attends the conference is well deserved for venues that attract a mix of collectors, scholars, architects, craftspeople and fashion designers who appreciate all things Western. The event, which coincides with the Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival, offers such highlights as a designer show house, live auction and runway fashion show. 


Quest for the West, September 11, 2015


The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art marked its 10th anniversary of Quest for the West Art Show and Sale on September 11 in Indianapolis with hundreds of collectors and art enthusiasts who purchased the works of 50 leading Western artists in the United States.

The show and sale, which officially closed for exhibition and purchasing on October 11, realized more than $1.1 million to benefit the celebrated museum and artists. That included a first-time event at Quest for the West, a live auction of a painting by Martin Grelle that brought $150,000 during the opening weekend, when festivities attracted more than 300 guests.

John Vanausdall, president and CEO of the Eiteljorg Museum, said this year’s Quest for the West represented the third consecutive year that proceeds from the show and sale have exceeded $1 million.

“While that is always great news, it means even more in this milestone year,” he said in a statement. “The success of this year’s event is an illustration that, over a decade, Quest has earned its place among the top Western shows and sales in the country. That is gratifying for our institution and our city.”

Events at the 10th annual show and sale included a so-called Collector of Distinction exhibit honoring Wayne Rumley of Tulsa, Oklahoma, whose collection includes such signal Western and wildlife painters as Howard Terpning and the late Bob Kuhn.

Quest for the West, the only event of its kind hosted by a major museum east of the Mississippi, was presented this year by Ice Miller and the Western Art Society. 

Awards given out during the show and sale’s evening gala included the 2015 Harrison Eiteljorg Purchase Award, presented by the Western Art Society to painter Logan Maxwell Hagege for Lands with No Time; the Cyrus Dallin Award for Best Sculpture, sponsored by Mike and Carla Leppert, to Greg Kelsey for Smells like Spring; The Henry Farny Award for Best Painting, sponsored by Steve and Jane Marmon, to John Elliott for Distant Light; the Victor Higgins Award of Distinction, sponsored by Cathy and Bob Turner, to Jay Moore; the Artists’ Choice Award, sponsored by Ed and Phyllis Cockerill to painters Michael Dudash for Chasing the Light and Gladys Roldan de Moras for Devotion, San Jose; the Patrons’ Choice Award, sponsored by the Booth Western Art Museum, went to Krystii Melanie for her painting, Spotted Horse and Mountain Lion, Yakama; and the Collector of Distinction was awarded to Betsey Harvey for her long support of the artists and the museum.


Auction in Santa Fe, August 14 – 15, 2015


Altermann Galleries’ three-session auction in Santa Fe on August 14 and 15 generated $1,750,000 in sales, which included a Martin Grelle oil, Hunter’s Morning, that fetched $81,600, compared with its pre-sale estimate ranging from $40,000 to $60,000.

Taos Society of Artists masters fared well at the signature fall sale. Small-size pieces hit healthy marks, with E. Martin Hennings’ Riders in Taos Valley, garnering $37,800, compared with its low estimate of $30,000. Joseph Henry Sharp’s oil portrait of Elk Foot Jerry fetched $43,200, compared with a pre-sale estimate of $35,000 to $50,000.

A piece by the recently deceased Robert Daughters, Chamisa Shadows, topped its high estimate, bringing $15,300, and a John Coleman sculpture, Black Moccasin, exceeded its pre-sale values by realizing $7,800, compared with $5,500 to $6,500.

The sale of Native American art saw 99 percent of lots sold by the end of the weekend auction. 

Albert Bierstadt [1830–1092], "Wind River Country Wyoming" | Oil on Canvas | 28.25 x 39 inches Sold: $800,000 — Jackson Hole Art Auction

Jenness Cortez, "Four American Visionaries" | Acrylic on Mahogany Panel | 33 x 40 inches Sold: $128,700 — Jackson Hole Art Auction