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Wheelin' & dealin' at the world's biggest Western art auction


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.

We'reatfortyfive,righthere! Willyougofortyseventhousandfivehundreddollars?

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. 

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."

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.