Art Deception from the Wild West

(Tribune December 2005)

I bought the cowboy. I probably paid too much.

There are simple common sense guidelines for amateur art collectors. When you have identified an artist whose work you like, do your research. Find out which pieces might be available, know where to look for your choices and have some idea as to fair market price.

I broke all the rules. I bought on impulse.

I found the cowboy in a used furniture store. A two-foot high bronze sculpture that weighed a ton (actually 80 lb.), a wild man on a wild horse. I saw it as a thing of beauty and the name of its well-known creator was on the base.

At this point, some readers will label me as "extremely stupid". I have no defense.

I had visited the Frederick Remington museum in Odgensburg, New York about fifteen years prior to my purchase. I had a general knowledge of Remington’s works which were sculptures and paintings inspired by stories from the Old West. I had read that all the original castings of Remington’s sculptures were accounted for and were either in museums or in private collections.

I had also concluded from the condition of this piece that it was not one of the clones that have been created and widely marketed ever since the expiry of copyright protection in the late 1960’s. I thought it possible, however, that this particular example could have been one of the authorized castings made after Remington’s death but before the death of his widow. After his widow died in 1918, all the molds were destroyed.

I took the cowboy home. There was rusted picture frame wire wrapped around his horse’s head to serve as reins and a bridle. I removed it. There was dust, dirt and fluff in the crevices. I had to vacuum the whole piece. The old guy had not received the best of care.

Remember what I said about choice, availability and market? I went to the Internet to get more information. The Frederic Remington web site gives all the bad news, no holds barred. Remington had produced 22 originals and all are accounted for. Price? In excess of 75 thousand Yankee dollars each. There were no surprises there. The information about the authorized castings in his widow’s lifetime and the "post copyright" clones confirmed my other assumptions.

But there were also the counterfeits! I had not been aware such things existed. Illegal forgeries started showing up soon after Remington’s widow’s death. There were many and they were all "signed". They bore no trace of their origins, there were no foundry marks and the worst part, from my perspective, was they were often mounted on a marble base. Anyone want to buy a nice marble base?

I turned off my computer and looked the cowboy in the eye. I thought he looked like the Bronco Buster on the web site… but maybe he didn’t. I could now see that the spurs were definitely wrong. The stirrups were suspect. The horse’s neck seemed too long and was at an odd angle. The position of the front legs did not seem right.

Now, you know you have "lost it" when you start yelling at inanimate objects.

"You are a fake!" I shouted, pounding my desk. The cowboy showed no reaction.

"A fake! Illegitimate! A bastard brother of the real Bronco Buster!"

I got out of my chair to make a closer inspection of the rough edges and imperfections. The web site offered to sell me a museum quality casting (post copyright of course) for about the same price as I paid for this old fake!

We expect that a sculpture of a beautiful woman or a small child should be museum quality, smooth and flawless. But I had purchased something else. I bought a cowboy, a bronco buster. Old West bronco busters did not have flawless features, they did not have pedigrees and they would never profess to be quality, museum or otherwise.

Remington created fabulous romantic views of the cowboy. The very fact that he created them gave them pedigrees. But my old guy is a genuine fake. He was conceived in an anonymous forge on a dark back street. My cowboy was created for one purpose only, to deceive. When the deception was discovered, he was vanquished. He probably became a plaything for a child who tried to rein him in with picture frame wire. He was dusty, uncared-for, and he ended up in a used furniture shop.

My cowboy is the true bronco buster, he is an outlaw; he is not a flawless romantic sculpture with an authentic serial number.

I reached out and patted his battered hat. "Relax old man. You and your pony have finally found a home."

And I mean it … maybe … anyone want to make me an offer?

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