That was then. At the reception the night before this year's auction, art collectors, dealers and wannabes alike tucked into a lavish spread of lamb chops, crab cakes and enough liquor to souse the Russian Duma. But there was a definite aura of apprehension. "There are gonna be some great, great values," Stremmel said. But, he added, "I think we're gonna be very lucky to do $15 million this year."

Stremmel has an encyclopedic knowledge of the market history of every piece. Yet he also knows that a painting represents something more than the price it sells for.
"Every one of these paintings has its own story," he said. "Some have just been in some museum's (storage) racks for years. Sometimes they're from people who just wanted to fill up their muscular, timbered house in Aspen or Vail.

"With others," he said, "people have had a very intimate relationship with the artist years and years ago, and (the art) is something they've lived with and loved."

Dealers say that paintings are driven into the market by "the three D's": death, divorce and -- especially nowadays -- debt. Many auction-goers hoped that the economic meltdown would make it possible to snap up paintings for a song. That might be so, Stremmel allowed. But he pointed out that many potential consignors were biding their time.

"If you've got a great painting," he said, "the worst possible scenario would be to put it into a high-profile sale like ours and have it not sell. Then it loses all its sex appeal. It's scorched."

At 1 p.m., Stremmel took the stage and started the sale with an etching of three mountain goats by Carl Rungius. Two paintings in, he loosened his tie and settled into an auctioneer's patter that would continue for the next four and a half hours.
 
Many of the people who came prepared to buy seemed slightly embarrassed by their own conspicuous consumption. Art, after all, isn't particularly useful. A $17,000 painting of three canoe-paddling Indians is cheap by the standards of the auction, but it won't hold your lipstick like a Prada bag, or keep your head dry like a good hat.

Just before the auction started, a woman sitting next to me in the front row -- whose husband manages investments for the estate of one of the biggest oil barons in history -- chatted amiably for several minutes. But when Stremmel climbed the stage, she took my notebook, wrote, "Please don't use my name," and began a rapid-fire art-buying binge.

Stremmel, with the waggish charm of a man who sells watches out of a van, cajoled and wheedled the bidding along. "Good lookin' piece here," he'd often say, by way of introducing a painting, or "amazing painting for this kind of price." When one bidder hesitated during a prolonged duel, Stremmel goosed him on, saying, "Don't lose it for 500 bucks."

A painting of Mount Hood, appraised at between $8,000 and $12,000, took its turn on the block. Stremmel grinned and noted, conspiratorially, "That's a good buy. It's got about a $3,000 frame on it."