In 2005, $5.6 million bought just one Charlie Russell painting. This year, with $11.7 million, you could have taken every last piece that sold in the auction. Several paintings did draw inspired bidding, primarily from the back of the room, where a covey of art dealers had taken up roost. But Stremmel had his work cut out for him.
One early indication came with a painting called Geronimo Waiting for the Dawn, by David Nordahl. It was appraised for between $20,000 and $30,000, but bidding stalled out at $5,000. Stremmel somehow coaxed it to $6,500 and then -- "This is a lot of painting for a little money" -- to $7,000. But that was it. When Stremmel finally pronounced "all through, all done: Sold, for $7,000," someone nearby whispered wow.
It got worse. A painting by Oscar E. Berninghaus called The Advance Scouts was appraised at $600,000 to $900,000 -- but drew bids for just $200,000. It was one of several high-profile paintings whose bids didn't meet the reserve price, forcing Stremmel to withdraw them from sale. Overall, the art was selling for about 67 cents on the dollar, based on its average appraised value.
A surprisingly poignant moment came when the stage assistants wheeled out a bronze statue of Sacagawea. Eerily backlit, the statue had a spectral presence. It had been recovered from the ruins of the Montana Trails Gallery in Bozeman, which was destroyed last March in a gas explosion that killed gallery director Tara Bowman. "This, apparently, is the only thing that survived," said Stremmel, noting that the bronze was still covered in ash from the fire, and that a portion of the sale price would go to a memorial fund for Bowman.
Then, at about 3:30, Stremmel reached the highlight of the auction: A 1907 watercolor by Russell called The Truce, with an appraised value of between $2 million and $3 million. A murmur of anticipation ran through the crowd.
"We'll start it off on the Russell here, a million dollars. Will you go one million dollars for it?"
Hep! called a spotter.
"One million we have. And now a million one ..."
For the next 60 seconds, Stremmel kept up a constant patter as the auction-goers bid up the price. The breathless lilt of his auctioneer's chant became more pronounced.
"Here will you give one million eight hundred thousand dollars now?"
Hyaa! Hyaa! called another spotter, standing by the bank of telephones set up to take call-in bids.
But it was still a long way to $2 million. Suddenly, Stremmel floundered. "How 'bout one million, eight five hundred ... uh," -- he laughed, and shook his head -- "I don't even know how to say this."
He regained his composure amid laughter from the crowd. "OK: one million eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars. A million eight on the telephone; one million eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars? Anywhere?"
He banged the gavel. "Sold it, on the telephone: One million eight hundred thousand dollars."
The audience had begun to take on the same involuntary, slightly punchy camaraderie as passengers on a long-haul flight, but Stremmel moved briskly on. Finally, at 5:28 that evening, he brought the gavel down for the last time, and told the crowd, with obvious relief, "Thank you all very, very much."
A few cheers went up.
Outside, up two flights of escalators, past the craps tables, the roulette wheels, the ATMs and the cashiers' cages, the first cool breeze of the evening began to temper the day's heat. The setting sun lit the peaks of the Sierra Nevada and the desert ranges -- just as pretty as ever, and a good deal at any price.