Best Western: Couer d’Alene Art Auction

| May 6, 2011 | 0 Comments
Couer d'Alene Art Auction

Going once, going twice: Hundreds gather to bid on Western Masterpieces.

Beyond the blinking slot machine lights at Reno’s Silver Legacy Resort Casino, a Maynard Dixon landscape sells for $750,000, while a carved statuette of Pocahontas by woodworker Samuel Anderson Robb goes for more than $64,000. This is the Coeur d’Alene Art Action, where Western art aficionados gather—many in Stetsons and boots—to spend millions on depictions of cowboys and Indians, horses and steer, Colorado plateaus and Sierra Nevada ranges.

The annual auction began 27 years ago in Las Vegas. Peter Stremmel, of Reno’s Stremmel Gallery, and his partners, Mike Overby of Hayden, Idaho, and Stuart Johnson of Tucson, Arizona, called it the National Finals Art Auction, so named to coincide with the National Finals Rodeo held in southern Nevada.

“We had it there [in Las Vegas] for about four years,” says Stremmel. “Then we realized that rodeo people weren’t necessarily Western art collectors.” So the partners moved it to Sun Valley, Idaho, renaming it the Sun Valley Art Auction. Upon recognizing that that spot wasn’t particularly easy to get to, they relocated within the state, becoming the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction. After about six years, they outgrew their Idaho facilities.

“We decided to move to Reno because it’s fairly accessible and has plenty of hotel rooms,” says Stremmel. “My partner said, ‘Dammit, we’re not going to change the name again!’”

The event is now the biggest art auction of its type. The focus is primarily fine nineteenth and twentieth century Western and American art, though it also includes sporting and wildlife works; it has recorded more than $200 million in sales over the years.

Compared to a Christie’s or Sotheby’s, Stremmel says that the auction is much more of a social event, kicking off with a cocktail party the night before; a bar is open during the bidding. Most of the almost 1,000 attendees live in the western states, with up to 70 percent traveling to Reno specifically for the auction. Stremmel estimates that about half are serious collectors; the rest are dealers, artists and the public who come just to watch the show.

And a show it is. Stremmel, the auctioneer, keeps the pace quick, moving 60 items an hour. He’s assisted by the “yippers,” who are interspersed in the crowd and help spot bids by crying “Yip! Yip!” Of the 250 to 300 items that are annually up for auction, approximately 95 percent are sold, an almost “unheard of” amount compared to other auctions, according to Stremmel.

Reno residents Edgar Kleiner and his wife, Ella, have been collecting Western landscapes for nearly 40 years; they recently loaned selections from their collection to the Nevada Museum of Art. Kleiner first visited the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction a few years ago. “There was one item I was interested in—a small Bierstadt,” he recalls. “I had my paddle, but I never even had a chance to get into the bidding; the price went up astronomically in a matter of seconds.”

Despite missing his chance at the Bierstadt, Kleiner says, “It’s an impressive event.” He adds that, because the economy has affected the sales of art, he may attend this summer. “It could be a temptation to pick up something very nice at bottom prices.”

Of course, prices most likely won’t go too low. Stremmel says that the sale is the highest grossing and highest profile Western art auction in the country. “Of the top ten Charlie Russells ever sold, we hold the record [price] for eight of them,” he says, citing two Russell paintings that sold in excess of $5 million and a highly important Russell bronze that sold for more than $4 million. This year’s auction will feature many significant paintings and sculptures by deceased Western masters, including seven works by Charlie Russell, three Joseph Sharps, two Frederic Remingtons and a dramatic, romantic Rocky Mountain landscape by Albert Bierstadt. Several of the most prominent contemporary Western artists will be creating works specifically for the auction.

“It’s a great show,” says Stremmel. “It moves fast, it’s exciting and you can see record prices made before your eyes.” By Alison Bender. TQ

Category: Arts & Culture, Best of Tahoe 2011, Gallery

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