JERRY GOROSKI is the consultant appraisar to whom I refer inquiries about Scriver bronzes. He is formally trained and certified to do assessments and knew Bob Scriver as well as working for the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls. His gallery is called "Open Range Art."


Sunday, December 02, 2007


This posting begins as a post already made on, but continues with a few more specific questions.


Unintelligible as much of the theory-based post-modern culture criticism has been over the last few decades, many far-reaching questions have emerged that are quite significant in terms of Montana lives. Naturally, much of it has had to do with Native Americans, but much of it also is very relevant to European-based peoples, to say nothing of the African and Asian heritages. Many of these issues are about education or museums, which most of us probably think of as educational. Since Montana formed as the Industrial Revolution was transforming the planet, much of this material is crucial to the future.

What IS a museum? In preparing Bob Scriver’s biography, I read a number of books that examine the origins of museums and the history and development of collections. Mostly they seem to have arisen from people’s natural inclination to save things they liked or that seemed to have value. The early Popes had a room like a vault where they kept precious objects, often commissioned from outstanding artist/craftsmen or perhaps gifts from great kings and leaders. In the modern United States, objects created in crystal by someone like Steuben Glass -- gorgeous, fragile, and one-of-a-kind -- might be presented.

In the 19th century, when taxonomies were the great obsession, natural history buffs (often amateur) required extensive accumulations of insects, bird skins, eggs, and so on, all in the interest of grouping them into categories and thus discovering something about creation. This was one of the duties of Lewis and Clark. (Now, of course, all those taxonomies and “family trees” have been blown away by DNA analysis.)

In those times anomalies and freaks interested a lot of people. Bob was of a “one excellent example of each” turn of mind, probably coming from the assumptions of taxidermists with hunter clients. He was always having to shoo away people who wanted to give him albino skunks or two-headed calves for the Scriver Museum. (This museum is dispersed now.) He continued this frame of mind with the bronzes, keeping “one of each,” which is now the basis of the estate entrusted to the Montana Historical Society.

Another influence from the 19th century was the growing awareness of “the last of these.” This continues today with even more anguish as we see whole species, whole languages, entire peoples, whole life-works, disappear under the wheels of time. Rare-ness has always been a criterion for value. Museums treasure the last dodo bird, the last passenger pigeon.

At present we see a great fascination with family trees so that -- running parallel with DNA studies of inheritance -- many people are looking up their own pedigrees, the begats that brought them to this place and time and the stories of those lives. My newly discovered branch of the Welsh sister descendants brought me two new documents, one a transcription of a Christian Oklahoma homesteader family and the other a book length account complete with photos. The closer we get to the present, the easier it is to find documents such as letters -- until we get to email. The Internet, of course, has been an amazing help when things are scanned and posted.

The idea that a museum is a repository for documents and objects is a strong one with an intense emotional engine, whether or not values are shared by others. When my mother died, one of the hardest problems was finding new homes for her most prized objects: the bisque porcelain hen that had been brought intact in a pioneer wagon by burying it in a barrel of flour, the huge blown-glass bluegreen Japanese float found at the beach, a gold lustreware vase that had been saved from disaster many times. We were shocked to discover that no one wanted them, not even dealers.

19th century anthropologists collected skeletons with no particular thought for their meaning to families. 20th century accumulators stole the heads off “death house” burials with grisly disrespect. Sometimes they kept such objects secret, showing them only to their closest friends, and other times skulls rested on the back bars of taverns, grinning at the clients. Reversing this practice has been a battle for NA activists.

Family is such a deeply embedded aspect of humans that the celebration of family versus their branding as traitors and failures has dominated much of historical interpretation. Quite aside from the discomfort of homesteaders living next to the Native Americans pushed off the same land, is the on-going rivalry among families of both populations, so strong that it still affects ordinary commerce in towns. My cousin once remarked to me that the “Pinkertons” which are the branch of my maternal grandfather were not as good as the “Cochrans” which are the branch of my maternal grandmother, because the Cochrans walked to the West on the Oregon Trail -- making them tougher -- but the Pinkertons came on the train, which was somehow weaker. I pointed out that the Pinkertons came quite a bit later than the Cochrans and would be FOOLS not to take the train, since by that time there WAS one! I think he had gotten the idea partly because a Cochran ranch was honored by the state of Oregon as a “Centennial” 100-year ranch. The Pinkertons never had anything but a prune orchard that went bust. Prosperity and endurance are the pioneer criteria. Maybe they’re pretty basic to all humans.

But there ARE other issues of value. For instance, whether or not Two-Guns Whitecalf posed for Fraser when he created the buffalo nickel is a matter involving considerable prestige and people have spent hours poring through archives to figure it out definitively.

What I’m leading up to is that the Montana Historical Society, kindly accepting papers, collections, and family heirlooms for decades and decades, is bulging at the seams. Storage is so crammed as to make items impossible to locate. Staff works in a small labyrinth, elbow-to-elbow. Yet there has been little discussion of what the real defining goal of the historical society -- much less its museum which many people see as its only function -- ought to be in the future. By what principles are decisions to be made? And if there is anything that the post-modern critique insists upon, it must be a “people’s” decision, not fiats from high-status, high-power, high-dollar experts.

Is the point of an historical museum to interpret what has happened? Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is my favorite example of interpretation-based exhibits, though the Glenbow is Calgary is also outstanding. Or is it to show off the importance of an area or a people? Might it be to store information as a way of researching and developing the future?

Should it be a way of preserving valuable objects like the CM Russell paintings? Or should it be a kind of public gallery developing art in general, as the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls has become, raising questions about the relationship with private for-profit galleries? The CM Russell, which needs to build an endowment for maintenance, lately put its Couse paintings up for auction. Couse was a major SW painter of Native Americans, but the curator felt they were “outside the mission” of the museum. The Montana Historical Society owns works by de Kooning and Picasso, which would fetch a pretty penny on the current hot art market. Can these be defended as part of Montana’s heritage? Or consider the Alberta Bair ranch, stocked with fabulous European objects.

Questions abound and should not be answered by decisions already made without realizing the limitations they can impose.

Some of the issues specific to the Scriver Estate are as follows:

The records of which casting was sold to which customer have not been located by the MHS staff. Many people contact me to find out the pre-stated limit of an edition was and who bought their casting from Bob, because the provenance, especially in the case of bronzes (because the ease of making counterfeits) affects the market value. In the recent case of the Seltzer originally thought to be a CMRussell painting, provenance was a crucial element and the difference in value was tenfold.

There are more than a few duplicate bronzes in the estate. Some customers have told me that they had ordered and even paid money down on bronzes that they never received. They suspect these may be among the duplicates. But where are the records?

Because Scriver's career began with many small tourist objects and because when he made the transition to "art" bronzes rather than what he would call "modeling," and because he never threw anything away but had stored hundreds of "blanks" of these little animals, and because the MHS took these, there arises the problem of how to value them. They are unfinished, originally sold for a few dollars, but are quite charming. I'm told the intention might be to give them away as "party favors" for fund-raising banquets. One of these early pieces was bought from a local person for thousands of dollars and marketed by a private gallery as an "original Scriver." It was, but hardly the same as the later works that sold for thousands of dollars.

Scriver had some collections of his own that he acquired as investments. Aside from the NA artifacts, the Mountie uniforms and the guns, there was a collection of Fery mural-like paintings and another of John Sharp paintings of Blackfeet country. These were dispersed, sold at auction. But he told me about a collection of John Rogers plaster genre scenes, sort of Norman Rockwell scenes. See for more information, such as: The John Rogers Museum is located in New Caanan, CT. on the property of the Historical Society. It has many groups displayed in Roger's original studio and a collection of J Rogers Bronzes on display. I haven't seen this on any list, or unpacked in the Scriver Center warehouse out by the airport, or mentioned by any staff member. Was it quietly sold before the estate was transported? Or since?

Many of these troubling questions are not in the awareness of MHS Trustees. Addressing them will require some expertise. I'm told that it will also require money which the museum does not have. Even in a new building, will there be money for the staff and maintenance that's needed?

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