Elizabeth Guheen had no idea if the plan she and the Bair Family Trust had put in place would work. But when the hammer struck and she accepted the $350,000 bid on lot 126 at the Coeur d’Alene art auction last weekend in Reno, her phone started ringing with text messages. “The Young Chief”, painted in 1905 by Joseph Henry Sharp, would return home.
“It’s hard for me to find words for the euphoria I felt when it happened,” said Guheen, director and chief curator of the Bair Family Museum in Martinsdale. “We kept it in Montana, that was our goal.”
Soon, visitors to the museum in central Montana will be able to see a signature painting of an Apsáalooke family in their camp by the renowned Western artist, painted during Sharp’s time on the Crow Reservation, reports the Montana Free Press.
The painting was purchased from Sharp in 1915 by his close friend Charles M. Bair, a prominent Montana businessman, sheep farmer, and philanthropist, who donated the painting to the Billings Commercial Club, the predecessor of the Billings Chamber of Commerce, as thanks. for submitting a sample of Sharp’s work. Sharp was a prolific painter who documented the lives of many tribes in the region, painting with precision and intimacy thanks to life among the natives, including the Puebloan people in Taos in the late 19th century and with the Apsáalooke on the Crow reservation in the early 1800s. of the 20th century. .
Billings Chamber leadership had been interested in selling “The Young Chief” for many years, and in 2008 they received an offer of $1 million for the paintingsaid John Brewer, president of the Billings Chamber, when interviewed by the Billings Gazette that fall. At the time, Brewer also identified two art auction houses that valued the piece between $500,000 and $800,000. “When it got to that level, the board started discussing how we could use that money,” he told the Gazette.
The Bair Family Trust expressed interest in the painting in 2008, but its desire to have “The Young Boss” dates back to 1963 when Bair’s daughter Alberta (herself a philanthropist and namesake of the Alberta Bair Theater in Billings) wrote to the House of Billings expressing her and her sister Marguerite’s wish that the painting be returned to the family and replaced “with another painting of equal value and beautifully framed,” Alberta wrote. “The reason why we want the painting [is that] Mr. Sharp was a personal friend of ours and we would like to have him to place in our Indian collection.”
The response, signed by George M. Washington, president of the Billings Chamber of Commerce at the time, said that returning the painting “would indicate a lack of appreciation for us to dispose of the painting in any way.”
“I think the camera response was very candid, but these things don’t last,” Guheen told the Montana Free Press after this weekend’s auction. “The new generations come and rewrite history.”
The 2009 economic downturn halted the chamber’s attempt to sell the painting until this year, when its board voted unanimously to sell the painting at the Coeur d’Alene art auction. It wasn’t until MTFP in June published an article about the possible sale of the painting that Bair’s trustees learned the painting would be up for auction.
A RETURN HOME
Sharp, who was born in Ohio and studied in Europe, spent nearly 80 years painting and observing life among the Plains Indians. His portraits of indigenous peoples were collected by entities such as the Smithsonian because of their detailed depiction of Native American clothing and culture. “The Young Chief,” featuring an Apsáalooke family in golden light outside a teepee, is a touted example of that style and represented a departure from Sharp’s contemporaries, who were painting the most violent confrontations in the American West. Sharply painted from the inside, portraying daily life and ceremony.
Sharp got to know the Bair family while living at the Crow Agency. Bair, who earned and had a lease on the Crow reservation to raise sheep, befriended the painter and became a loyal patron. After Bair died in 1943, her daughters kept in touch with Sharp, and her affinity for him may be why Alberta wrote to the Billings House in the 1960s, requesting the return of the painting. That request was turned down, and although the conversation was reignited in 2008, there has been no movement since then to return the painting, according to Guheen.
“No effort has been made by the chamber to communicate with the Bair Family Museum Board of Advisors or to ensure that this painting, a treasured part of Montana history, remains in state and is enjoyed by the public,” he said. Guheen.
Brewer, president of the Billings Chamber, when contacted this week by MTFP, wrote in an email that the chamber received about a dozen emails asking the organization to reconsider the sale.
“There was considerable misunderstanding as to who the ‘Chamber’ is,” Brewer said, adding that the nonprofit surveyed its 1,100 members several years ago “and nearly 75% told the Chamber board to sell”.
After learning of the sale, Guheen said, there was no question among Bair’s trust board members about how to proceed.
“It was because of the letter,” Guheen said. “That was the axis. It was like, ‘Now is your chance, Alberta. We’re trying to get it to you.’”
The board invited Thomas Minckler, a Billings art buyer and historian who initially raised concerns about the sale of the painting, to recommend a course of action and represent the organization at the auction. The board set a limit on what it would bid, an amount not disclosed to MTFP, which also factored in the auction house’s 21% fee in addition to the winning bid. The board has a fiduciary responsibility to the trust, Guheen said, “and you have to follow it very rigidly, and they’re careful about that.” Minckler, acting on behalf of the Bair Family Trust, made the highest offer of $350,000 and purchased “The Young Chief” for a final price of $423,500.
“I felt at peace and relieved knowing that we had saved that part of Montana’s history,” Minckler told MTFP. “Charlie Bair and Alberta would be very happy to know that the painting is coming home.”
A ‘SOFT’ MARKET
This year’s Coeur d’Alene Art Auction featured 317 works and sales totaled $21 million. Among the sculptures of cowboys thrown from horses, portraits of warriors, oracles, culture bearers and scenes portraying indigenous culture, 14 of Sharp’s paintings were up for auction last Saturday.
“Young Chief” had the highest starting bid at $280,000 and was valued between $300,000 and $500,000, according to the auction catalog. However, many of Sharp’s paintings sold below their value, with four failing to meet the minimum bid and not selling.
“The market right now for Joseph Henry Sharp and other Taos artists is weak,” Minckler said. “They sold for the lower end of the estimate. Usually, at the Coeur d’Alene auction, the art exceeds the sale price.”
The Billings House sold three works of art at the auction: the Sharp, an oil painting by Warren Rollings showing a Native American smoking a pipe, and a charcoal sketch titled “Indian Head” by LeRoy Greene. The Rollings sold for $12,000 and Green for $600, with the trio of paintings earning $362,600. Brewer indicated that proceeds will be donated to the newly formed Chamber Foundation, with interest from the funds used to “support leadership development, education, talent attraction and retention, and community development initiatives.”
“They were establishing a non-profit foundation by selling off a piece of the Montana estate,” Guheen said. “They didn’t see anything wrong with that.”
The driving forces for the trust and board of advisers to purchase “The Young Chief” were its artistic value and its value and history to the Bair family, said Gerry Fagan, chairman of the Charles M. Bair family board of advisers. . Trust.
“We’re glad we were able to get the painting and keep it where the public can see it,” Fagan said. “We really liked the idea of keeping this in Montana because of its Montana roots. Speaking for myself, I didn’t want it to go into a private collection where Montanans would never see it again.”
The Bair Family Museum is housed in the former farmhouse in Martinsdale, displaying the family’s art collection, Native American artifacts and textiles, photography collections, and furniture from Europe. The museum even has Alberta’s signature red hats and the sisters’ clothing and other personal items.
The sisters had no heirs, and Alberta was the last family member to die in 1993. Three years before her death, she created a nonprofit charity that maintains the museum and ranches, funds scholarships each year for eight students who They live in Meagher or Sweet Grass. counties where the family ranch operated and awards money to Meagher, Sweet Grass and Yellowstone counties.
“Charlie Bair was very influential here and in other counties as well, and so was Alberta – he really led a fascinating life and building the trust he did after his death was an incredible sacrifice, and today he is paying dividends with his trust and charitable contributions. Fagan said.
The Bair Family Museum is open daily in the summer through Labor Day; It is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays the rest of the year. Guheen has already chosen a place for the painting at the entrance of the museum.
“If we were lucky enough to stay in Montana,” he said, “I want people to be able to see it right away.”