Inside the Art Market: Cowboy Cool

We were in the balcony with our father, Charles, but instead of all three of us boys arriving at our seats with him, somehow there were now only two.

The music hall was filled to capacity here in St. Petersburg, the somnolent “city of green benches“ on the Gulf of Mexico where we lived. The show about to commence featured a television hero we worshipped, the singing cowboy Roy Rogers, who was in Florida on a big Southern tour. We were sitting up high, looking down on a sea of children and parents waiting impatiently for the show to begin, the hall bursting with joy.

For soon appearing on stage would be Roy and his wife Dale Evans, Roy’s mighty golden palomino stallion “Trigger,” Roy’s German Shepherd dog “Bullet” and even Dale’s mare “Buttermilk,” all performing in an old time Wild West revue, with cowboy songs and comedy skits, yodeling, roping tricks and trained animals galore. It was a dream come true to be there!

But we were suddenly aware of our father’s extreme agitation. For one of us, Brad, had gone missing. In all the confusion and clamor of reaching our seats, he had been separated from us. So now he was lost at the Roy Rogers show, and Charles rushed off looking frantically through the hall for him as my older brother Chuck and I stared down at the stage from our seats. It was almost curtain time and we were desperate for the show to begin. Brad was ruining everything.

But suddenly there he was, on stage with Roy, walking hand-in-hand to a microphone, smiling, waving!

Chuck and I stared bug-eyed down at the stage, struck dumb with insane envy. We knew that Roy and Dale had adopted two or three children, so for an instant we both thought the same thing: maybe Brad was about to become the newest addition to the Rogers family. And sure enough Roy said to the whole audience, now silenced and rapt with curiosity: “If nobody wants to claim this little buckaroo, I’ll take him home with Dale and me.”

The music hall exploded with shrieks of laughter, cheering and applause. Stunned, I suddenly felt worried about Alyce, our mother. She had stayed at home with our youngest brother, Kim, so that us “men” could have a night out together, and she had so carefully made all of the arrangements. Tall and athletic and an avid horseback rider, she had recently been featured in a cover story in the St. Petersburg Times on Mother’s Day entitled I Live in an All-Male Fraternity House. With the laughter all around me ringing in my ears I thought: she won’t be laughing when she hears this story!

But the moment of anxiety passed quickly and Brad was soon ushered away and claimed backstage by Charles, waiting in the wings. Beaming as he came to his seat to join us, now all puffed up and proud and suddenly famous, and not at all shaken by the experience or tearful, Brad soaked in the admiration of the other kids all around us: “It’s the runt Roy almost adopted right on stage,” one screamed.

I hadn’t thought about this bizarre episode from my childhood in the ‘50s for many years, not until the legend of Roy Rogers came roaring back to life briefly in 2010. Roy and Dale were long gone and the Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Museum, housing all that fabulous cowboy memorabilia in Branson, Missouri, had gone out of business and closed. The Rogers family was selling everything at Christie’s—even the horses.

So for me it was going to be one last Wild West review, with all the show biz dazzle and swagger worthy of “the King of the Cowboys” and the “Queen of the West.” I wasn’t going to miss it for the world!

The sale at Christie’s was announced as a joint venture with a small auction house named High Noon, a firm vastly more attuned to the cowboy memorabilia market than one, like Christie’s, founded in London in the 18th century and reeking of silk and satin.

Headquartered in Los Angeles, High Noon describes itself as “the window to the art, the crafts and cultural legacy of the Native American Indian, the Cowboy, the Vaquero and the Old American West.” As appraisers and auctioneers in these arcane areas of collecting they specialize in selling such things as spurs, saddles, chaps and belt buckles. As with anything else sold in the art market, chaps and spurs are all the more valuable if associated with a famous name. Thus on High Noon’s website one learns that a saddle once belonging to Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa was sold by the firm in 2012 for over $700,000.

Their colorful e-magazine, “Smoke Signals,” offers a glimpse into the lively if little-known trade in cowboy memorabilia that engages this sliver of the vast global art market. One may wish to attend the Amarillo Western Antiques and Collectibles Show and Auction, for example, or the Houston Livestock & Rodeo Show. “Smoke Signals” will provide all the details. In this realm, the name Roy Rogers means something special; and anything owned by Roy himself is treasured, coveted, fought over.

One can thus see how a sale of the contents of the Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Museum would have appealed to Christie’s—if not for the folksy, cornball marketing that would be necessary but certainly for the provenance and “upside potential” of even the most modest items in the collection.

On occasion one will see the mighty giants like Sotheby’s and Christie’s partner with a much smaller, regional and more specialized auction house on a particular collection of great distinction and value, especially a collection in which the two old houses have limited expertise. Such was the case in 2000 when Sotheby’s partnered with Guyette and Schmidt of Farmington, Maine, on a most intriguing and exotic collection from the little town of Pasadena, Texas.

Sotheby’s was competing at that time to win the Dr. James M. McCleerey Collection, hailed as the finest private duck decoy collection in the world. The sale would fall comfortably into Sotheby’s department of American Folk Art led by the esteemed specialist Nancy Druckman. But even Nancy had no experience in handling such a monumental collection in this very narrow field.

Then again, what Sotheby’s did have was enormous marketing clout through offices and representatives throughout the world. Above all, they had a burning desire to outdo their chief rival, Christie’s, in winning this coveted piece of estate business. Sotheby’s also had a bigger building, a new glass-and-steel tower perfect for exhibiting such a vast collection as this. But they still needed a partner, a firm that had its finger on the very pulse of duck decoy collectors.

Hence they made a deal with Guyette and Schmidt: Sotheby’s would publish the catalogue, mount the exhibition and market the collection for all its worth. Guyette and Schmidt for their part would provide the expertise on everything and, most importantly, bring in the buyers.

As Nancy Druckman commented afterward in the Sotheby’s year-end publication Art at Auction, the viewing galleries were transformed into a museum of duck decoys. If collectors love to see how others display their treasures, with as much verisimilitude as possible, this exhibition gave them a vivid, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the living room of a connoisseur:

The pre-sale exhibition for the collection was professionally designed and installed in a manner that dramatically displayed virtually all 650 birds, prints, lithographs, calls and shot boxes on open shelves, just as they were in Dr. McCleery’s home.

A one-day symposium on the collection sponsored by Sotheby’s was an additional marketing blitz. It featured the world’s leading experts and scholars in this field, with collectors able to participate in hands-on examination of the decoys. All of this took place in January, during Americana Week, when all the major collectors and museum curators were in town for the auction sales as well as the Winter Antiques Show at the Park Avenue Armory.

Hence by the day of the McCleery Collection sale buyers had been stirred into a frenzy of expectation. Pre-sale estimates were thus demolished and the sale made a total of $10.9 million. The top lot was a sleeping Canada Goose, circa 1917, one of the finest decoys ever carved, a sublime work of folk art which brought $684,500.

Suddenly, the art market knew that duck decoys were hot.

So, in a similar vein, Christie’s co-branded with High Noon to mount the sale of the Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Museum Collection. It was scheduled for July, a slow, whimsical time on the auction calendar, with the galleries empty, the season ending, and staff departing for the summer holidays. Moreover, the clients attracted to the sale would be very different from those seen two months earlier, say, during the mighty Post-War and Contemporary Art sales, the very high point of the auction season, drawing the greatest art collectors from around the world. In July, on the other hand, the Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Collection would be attracting a much more down home, ten-gallon hat sort of crowd.

Hence the soaring, elegant atrium deep within 20 Rockefeller Plaza, a majestic centerpiece for Christie’s to display the most expensive art or jewelry coming up for sale, commanding the attention of all as they ascend the twin staircases to the main saleroom, was suddenly transformed, amidst bales of hay, into a barn. And there in the center was Trigger, now mounted and rearing up as in one of the many westerns in which he and Roy had appeared through the years—Silver Spurs, Along the Navajo Trail, Under Nevada Skies, Apache Rose—and ready to be auctioned off to the highest bidder!

At the cocktail reception for the sale I mingled with the happy crowd, sipping mojitos and celebrating the joyous, carefree days of the 1950s and television shows about cowboy heroes like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. It was an older crowd, to be sure, the sort of baby boomer fans who once made the pilgrimage to the museum in Missouri, perhaps, and now swooned over all these treasures. And there were so many: Roy’s fabulous Nudie Taylor boots with flaming yellow eagles; his Kelly Brothers Diamond Dick pattern spurs overlaid with Navajo silver and mounted with turquoise; Dale’s parade saddle in bright red and ivory; and Roy’s brown wool lace-up shirt featuring a Trigger theme with embroidered horse beads on the suede-fringed yoke and back, saddles on the sleeves and spurs on the pearl buttoned cuffs, embellished with rhinestones throughout!

I wandered in awe through the exhibition. One of the greatest stars of Roy’s television show was a 1946 Willys Jeep named Nellybelle which seemed to have a mind of its own, racing hither and yon even without a driver! And here it was amidst all the other remnants of the television show, which included a mounted Bullet, a mounted Buttermilk, and Roy’s Bonneville convertible with the Texas longhorns mounted on the chassis. Guitars and posters and photographs added color to the whole swirling cyclorama of fading memories.

During the sale I stood in the back of the room and watched the bidding battles. Trigger’s magnificent parade saddle designed by Edward H. Bohlin sold to a British collector for $386,500, with Trigger himself going for $266,500. Nellybelle made $116,500, multiples of its estimate.

I couldn’t tell if this sale was truly a celebration or a wake. Cathy Elkies, now of Phillips but who once handled Iconic Collections at Christie’s and had been in charge of this sale, seemed to think it was the former. “This highly anticipated event brought out thousands of Roy and Dale fans whose emotions and memories flooded our galleries,” she commented after the sale. “We were privileged to handle a collection that resonated so deeply with so many people.”

Resonate is an apt word here. For looking back at all the so-called “tribute” sales that have taken place in the auction world over the past two decades—encompassing a vast array of memorabilia from the lives of such cultural icons as Andy Warhol, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, James Brown, Nancy Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, T. S. Elliot, Winston Churchill, Karl Lagerfeld, Elton John, Princess Margaret—one sees a familiar pattern of fevered, nearly frantic response from the public.

People who may care little or nothing about the art market are suddenly riveted by the sale at auction of a famous person’s possessions, no matter how modest or quirky these may be. It’s a walk down memory lane that few can resist, a chance to reflect on how this or that famous person’s life may have some personal meaning and importance to one’s own, however slight.

I suppose this is why the Roy Rogers sale attracted me. I immediately thought of that long-ago adventure in St. Petersburg when my brother Brad suddenly appeared on stage with Roy. I recalled all those hours watching Roy and Dale on television in wholesome family entertainment; and, of course, there was the theme song for the show that still rings in my ears, the folksy lyrics that closed each exciting episode:

“Happy trails to you, ‘til we meet again.”

—Ronald Varney

(Image: Movie cowboy Roy Rogers posing on his Palomino horse Trigger in the San Fernando Valley. Photo by Walter Sanders/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.)