09 Jun Collector’s Eye: Brian Lebel
“I couldn’t wait to get to Wyoming and become a cowboy,” says Brian Lebel. Cashing in after working at the Smith & Wesson plant in his native Massachusetts, Lebel arrived in Cody and hired on as a cowboy at Valley Ranch near Yellowstone National Park. Larry Larom, a collector of Western Americana collectibles and art, owned the ranch.
The job as a cowboy taught Lebel plenty, but the education he loved most was being able to live with and admire the items Larom had collected. “Seeing his collection day after day made me fall in love,” Lebel says. Today, a large portion of the Larom collection is exhibited at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West Museum in Cody.
The West agreed with Lebel and in 1987 he opened Old West Antiques Gallery on Main Street in Cody. Two years later he started Brian Lebel’s Old West Show & Sale. Now, 25 years on, his annual show, held each June in Denver, will acquire the High Noon Show, held each January in Mesa, Arizona. It will become known as Brian Lebel’s High Noon Show & Auction.
Lebel works hand-in-hand with his wife, Melissa. Not only do Melissa and Brian find common ground in their love of Old West memorabilia, but their taste in contemporary Western art matches as well. “It happens often,” Melissa says. “We will be at a show and see something that attracts each of us. One time it was a painting of blue cows. I loved the piece but wasn’t sure if Brian would like it. I asked him what his favorite piece was and he said, ‘I like those blue cows.’”
Their love of art is signaling some changes in the business, namely the addition of paintings and sculpture. “Art has been coming in to us more and more,” Lebel says, as he points to a Gary Niblett painting, then a Bill Anton painting.
The Lebels love and live what they do. “When we acquired the Roy Rogers estate, we immersed ourselves in it and lived it for three years,” Brian says.
The couple makes their home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, surrounded by art and collectibles.
WA&A: What inspires you to collect art?
Brian lebel: I’ve always believed you shouldn’t be inspired to collect art, but art should inspire you. We love living the life. The fact that artists and artisans represent what we love speaks to us. We have a wide range of art and we are fortunate that we have very similar tastes, even in oddball blue cows.
WA&A: What was the first work that you purchased and what made you choose it?
Bl: What got me excited about the artistry of the cowboy was a pair of spurs that I bought — I thought that the engraving and the design were a piece of art. That was in 1973. I still have those today; they’re hanging in my house.
WA&A: What is your most beloved piece, and why?
Bl: That’s a hard question for an art dealer to answer. We have many pieces we love but I don’t know if “beloved” is a way to describe them because we know one day it might be inventory. We are only caretakers, we can’t keep everything forever, but I do have that first set of spurs I bought …
WA&A: At what point did you realize you were a collector?
Bl: As a dealer I don’t consider myself a collector because if I kept the best pieces for myself, I’d be doing my clients a disservice. What we have are the things we love. We have a houseful of John and Terri Kelly Moyers’ paintings because they have meaning to us.
WA&A: With which living artists would you like most to have dinner?
Bl: The greatest part of doing what we do is we get to have dinner with every living artist that we would be interested in. When you go to the Cowboy Artists of America, you get to have dinner with great living cowboy artists. We’re very fortunate. … We were at the Coors show in Denver recently, and saw Willie Matthews. He and I made a trade in 1988, and I consider his painting to be the first one of true fine art for me.
WA&A: If you could be any artist in history who would it be?
Bl: I would have loved to see what Charlie Russell was able to see and do, but I don’t know if I would like to have lived in a time that was so rough. I love his talent but I prefer to go where there’s a dentist and medical facilities.
WA&A: What was the one that got away?
Bl: It was a Frank Tenney Johnson painting at a Christie’s Auction in Ojai. I lived in Wyoming at the time and my living room window looked out to Jim Mountain, which was the subject of Johnson’s painting … I wanted it so bad, but the price went too high, way past the estimate. I can still see that painting in my mind.
WA&A: Where do you imagine your collection will be in 100 years?
Bl: We hope it will be in the hands of someone who appreciates it as much as we do.