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."


Friday, January 08, 2010


My knowledge of Western art is about a half-century of direct experience plus a lot of talking and reading. Since moving back to Valier in the last decade I’ve seen more change than in the previous forty years.

1. The internet has transformed everything. What was a small local auction in Great Falls has multiplied into a cluster of varied but peripherally related auctions and shows: one of secondary “gray” sales meant to move art and artifacts not acceptable to the curated auction; one of Indians; one of women; one of guns; and so on. Now the original auction has split down the middle with results no one can predict yet. (A few more months: this is a March event.) There are new auctions all across the continent around the calendar.

Buyers no longer have to come and look, which curbs impulse sales at the heart of auction. Bidding may be via computer monitor, having already investigated provenance and quality by proxy or online. I was vividly impressed by the man who said he went in to the gun show, looked carefully at them, made a list, and then sat in the parking lot bidding on his mobile phone because he did NOT want people to know what he would be carrying home. Likewise, at auctions there are people who do NOT want to be known and maybe don’t even want a proxy to bid for them. For them secrecy is part of the excitement, not sitting in the audience to see the other bidders.

The values of this artwork are no longer determined by expert dealers and galleries. Websites like are a ticker tape keeping track of previous auction transactions so that one knows what the last bids were on similar art. One sits in the audience with a laptop. This has had various effects on the market. One is that a series of auctions attended by people who dislike a certain artist or just don’t know that work can send values spiraling down. Or the opposite can happen if there’s been a recent article praising the work or a prominent statement by someone important. Many more people are becoming much more aware. Probably some of them are misled by using numbers instead of reality, including informed curators of value. The old idea that it’s better to invest in art, that one can store value in art, has been encouraged by the stock market catastrophe, but others who bought early in the belief that they were acquiring valuable work are now crushed to discover their standards were local. The stuff is merely a curiosity, the artist unknown.

Another dynamic is more scurvy. Individuals with capital, like professionals, have “invested” by buying up work from starving artists and holding it in warehouses against the day it would be worth lots of money. In the meantime, it was worth their while to hold down the value of the art, at the expense of the artist. Now, the hour for profit may have passed.

2. More than other categories, except perhaps Manhattan-based abstract art of the Fifties and Sixties, the constituency for Western art is aging. (Same thing for Western history and fiction.) The fans of action art showing roping and bar fights or military events tended to be the ages of WWII veterans. Many of the buyers who could pay Charlie Russell’s prices made their money in the original development of natural resources before regulation. The Cowboy Artists of America has lost nearly all its original members and was most grievously injured by the loss of Joe Bieler, who was able to reconcile some strong personalities. At the first CMR Auction, it was possible to recognize people who knew Charlie personally. Not now.

3. The major jump in value of Western art during the last part of the twentieth century has attracted a great many more artists with much more sophisticated training and this has meant both an increase in quality and a shift away from first-hand content. Dealers have redefined “cowboy art,” broadening it to include the first painters to record the West and particularly the very fine landscape painters. VERY fine genre Chinese painters have joined the category. This helps to get the category out of the bunkhouse, but it also means that someone’s naive but earnest depiction of corral events has to hold up against a huge, mystical, elegantly framed, Moran landscape.

4. Other modern technology has allowed the mass production of inexpensive art knockoffs. Even bronze casting is much easier and cheaper when ceramic shell molds are used and the technicians are not particularly well-trained. Asians can duplicate bronzes using cheap artisans outside the reach of copyright. Another example is Giclee prints, which are ballyhoed as much more than what they are: xeroxes. Value is supposed to be added if the artist signs the copy or even adds a few paint strokes. When the prices come down, the subject matter also becomes less grand, more like greeting card subjects meant to appeal to the unsophisticated.

The backside of this is that now it is possible to analyze bronze molecules in a kind of metal DNA and there are many more scientific analyses to perform on dubious paintings. Of course, common sense will never be amiss in a world where simply scissoring the signature off the bottom of a Seltzer transforms it into a Russell worth ten times as much.

5. Developments in the larger world have also affected the Western art genre. De-accessioning has become a huge public controversy, though it has always gone on in a low-grade behind-the-scenes manner. The ethics codes of museum associations forbid the selling of art work in order to maintain the building or pay salaries, but this is exactly how Harold McCracken started the Whitney Gallery of Western Art with paintings from a crumbling local Remington archive. Since then, some institutions have become threshing floors (especially historical societies) where objects that people think have great value are brought in the front door, held for a while, then sold out the back door. Tax structures and exemptions have aggravated this. The laws are now changing. One deaccessioning event was so notorious (Brandeis proposed to close its gallery and sell all the contents) that the issue is now VERY hot.

6. The relationship between donors and patrons and the possibilities for increasing the value of their collections by paying to have them shown in curated institutions so they collect fame and increase value is another little strategy that is being questioned. It has long been a practice in Western art. Some art zines are now running stories on the fabulous collectors, rather than what they collect. There is a thin wall between curators, collectors, and institutional administrators with cross-overs like the Renners or B. Byron Price. There is also a symbiosis between curating and writing, so that an “expert” book on a particular artist can increase its value. But so many glowing accounts of artists have been written, that the value of such books is diminished. Of course, those who control publishing, control artists to some degree and therefore sales of art.

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