In a ballroom deep in the basement of the Silver Legacy casino, far from the raucous bleeping of the slot machines upstairs, Peter Stremmel stood before a couple hundred people, working hard to sell some paintings.
ThirtyIhave. Thirtytwofiveandnowthirtyfive. Thirtysevenfive.
Stremmel is the emcee of the annual Coeur d'Alene Art Auction, the biggest Western art sale in the world -- and an event that for the past decade has taken place not in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, but in Reno, Nev. Stremmel, who is 60, has been dealing art since 1969. On this July day, he had already been moving art out the door for two hours in his nicely tailored suit, a pair of reading glasses hung on a cord around his neck. He was given to poignant exclamations of "mercy" when paintings sold for particularly high or -- as happened more frequently -- low prices.
At 3 p.m., a William R. Leigh painting called Hopi Maiden Grinding Corn was on the block.
He took one last look around the ballroom and called Anywhere?
It's going at forty-five ... thousand dollars.
Stremmel thwacked the gavel on the podium before him, and a pair of attendants replaced Hopi Maiden with a piece by Edgar Payne. Stremmel started his auctioneer's chant anew. He had two and a half hours to go.
By day's end, Stremmel had moved nearly 300 pieces, a veritable menagerie of buckaroos, Indian maidens, elk, wolves, fur trappers and, somewhat incongruously, the German battleship Graf Spee. A Charles Russell painting called The Truce brought a cool $1.8 million, and a couple from Boston went home with a haunting bronze rescued from a deadly art-gallery explosion. But, as Stremmel reminded the reporters beforehand, "There is no asset class that's been unaffected by this economic downturn." And more than a few paintings left the Silver Legacy trailing a cloud of smoke.
Cowboy art and its various offshoots are an exception to the old ranchers' lament that you can't eat the scenery. Over the past three decades, Western art has enjoyed a renaissance, and the Coeur d'Alene Art Auction has played a prominent role in it.
The legendary cowboy artists Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington are still the giants, but the genre includes a slew of lesser-known -- and now deceased -- artists, including Oscar E. Berninghaus, E. Irving Couse and other so-called Taos Founders. Today, other Anglo artists such as Howard Terpning carry the torch. But the field is branching out in surprising directions: One contemporary star is a Chinese-born painter named Mian Situ, who specializes in paintings of Chinese immigrants to the West.
Stremmel, who with his wife, Turkey, owns a gallery in Reno, started things rolling in Las Vegas in 1985, when he and several partners put together an auction timed to coincide with the National Finals Rodeo there. They operated on the theory that there was an elusive harmonic convergence between rodeo fans and Western art collectors. But, as Stremmel says, "It just proved to be a totally flawed theory. Ninety-nine percent of the people who came to the rodeo couldn't have cared less about Western art."
In 1989, they moved the auction to Sun Valley, Idaho, where it proved somewhat more successful. Then, in 1993, they moved it to Coeur d'Alene, and there, Stremmel says, "We really turned the corner."
The auction became so popular that logistical complications ensued. In 1997, a Coca-Cola executive -- a major private collector-- planned a last-minute trip, but couldn't get a room and ended up staying home. "We all looked at each other after that and said, ‘You can't turn somebody like this away,' " Turkey says.
So the partners moved the auction once more, this time to Reno, a town with plenty of jet parking, lots of hotel rooms, and a shared affinity for the Coeur d'Alene's yee-haw, anything-goes spirit. For $60, any shlub off the street can get two tickets to the auction and rub shoulders with the high-net-worth individuals whose Gulfstreams are parked at the airport a few miles away. Plenty of people come just to look.
But this is, in the end, a well-heeled person's game. In 2005, the auction set a world record for a Russell painting when Piegans went for $5.6 million. The following year, Stremmel sold $27.4 million worth of art. Last year, it was nearly $37 million.