“March in Montana” 2021 – a personal account

From the middle of February when the annual “March in Montana” 2021 auction catalog arrived, through this past weekend’s event, there has been a whirlwind of excitement, nervousness, joy, planning, crunching numbers – more planning – and a greater lack of sleep for me than usual.

“March in Montana” is the annual Western art auction held during “Western Art Week” in Great Falls, Montana. “Western Art Week” takes place around March 19th, Charles Marion Russell’s birthday.

“March in Montana” 2021 was a two-day art auction with over 350 lots each day.

The auctioneer is fantastic pushing through 75-80 lots an hour. Attendees must pay attention or risk missing out on the piece they came to bid on. Prices vary from $100 to over $100,000 which a lot achieved last year.

As a “younger” art collector, “March in Montana” is one of my favorite weekends of the year. Having a strict budget, I must plan accordingly. Knowing ahead of time that I will not be able to compete on the big-ticket items, I look for paintings in my price range and others that might slip past the rest of the crowd.

Preparation Begins

From the day the auction catalog arrived, my preparation began. I scanned through it multiple times, each time with a different reason in mind.

The first time I looked through the catalog, I looked for items that I liked, went with my collection, and I wanted to try and buy. With a budget of $2,000, it was tough deciding between spreading those funds amongst multiple paintings or going all in on one.

The second time I perused the catalog, I window shopped. I looked for works of art that I liked, but were out of my budget or did not go with our collection, but I enjoyed for the simple reason I love to see great art.

Since I had a clear understanding of our collection principles and my budget, the first two passes were easy. The third time is when the fun – and work began. On my third time through, I looked for pieces that I liked, and were great works of art, but did not necessarily go with our collection. However, if they sold for the right price, I wanted to be prepared to bid.

On to Great Falls

After I completed these three steps, the waiting game began. 

Bidders could bid via the “March in Montana” app as well as on the ICollector’s website, so my expectations and plans were constantly reacting to the live auction.  

When March 19th finally arrived, I left Helena feeling good about my list of five paintings with their corresponding max bids.

All the planning I had completed to this point was carried out online via my phone or computer screen or from the auction catalog. I still needed to see the pieces in person to make a final decision. Some things that cannot be learned or comprehended from a tiny phone screen or catalog photo are the actual size, feeling and quality of work. A painting might have looked nice on my five-inch screen, but if it is 60×40, in person, it could possibly have had an entirely different look and feel.

When I arrived in Great Falls, I was able to mark off three of the five paintings right away as I simply did not like them in person. I also made adjustments to my max bids after I inspected the condition of the other paintings. Now, I could take a seat, put my hand on the paddle and wait for the auction to begin. 

The Auction

Dan Messerli’s “March in Montana” 2021 auction notes.

Since I planned on bidding and competing on “step one” pieces that day, I did not have the luxury of extra cash to try bidding on any “step three” paintings that might have presented themselves.

To my discouragement, when my lots came up, they sold for more than my max bid. I was a bit dejected since I did not win a single painting from my list, but that is just how auctions go. A wise collector once told me, “You cannot win them all.” 

I decided to leave the auction early and go home and finalize my plan for day two.

Everything I wanted to competitively bid for was on day one, but that does not mean I would be bidding willy-nilly on day two. I still had to have a plan or the possibility of getting caught up in the moment could cause me to bid unnecessarily and buy something I did not really want or even like. My wife and I have coined this term “Art-notized.”

I created a list of seven or eight pieces that I liked and began my hour-long drive again.

Once I arrived, same thing. I evaluated each painting on my list and found I did not need to make any adjustments. I was surprised to find one of the bronzes I liked was not a “cute little bear” like I thought.  It turned out to be over a foot in length and almost a foot tall and over half a foot wide. I decided to keep it on the list, however, as the additional size did not take away from the sculpture and I envisioned the perfect spot for it in our house.

Day Two

Ty Barhaug, Pure Attitude.

The second day at “March in Montana” 2021 was filled with excitement.

A painting by Don Oelze with a high estimate of $25,000 sold for $37,500. A Jack King painting titled Fresh Mounts sold for $32,500 on an estimate of $5,000 – $7,000. The highlight of the auction for me was when a Ty Barhaug painting titled Pure Attitude, with an estimate of $6,000 – $8,000, hammered for $55,000 to cheers and roars from the audience.

Pure energy filled the room.

Day two was a success for me as well. I was able to check off a painting on my “step three” list as I ended up being the high bidder on a fantastic 11×14 landscape by the Colorado artist Jay Moore titled, Red Elephant Mountain from Big Creek Lake. 

I went and paid for my newly-won painting as the final lots went across the stage and “March in Montana” 2021 was in the books.

I said my “goodbyes” and headed home to Helena. I had time to think about the past few months and that is when this story came to mind. 

Most people can only dream about being able to afford the art auctions which make newspaper headlines. The $69 million Beeple NFT or a $100 million-plus Jean-Michel Basquiat, but I want all would-be collectors – regardless of budget constraints – to know that original art can be affordable. 

If you are ever in the Great Falls area in March, tell Charlie “happy birthday,” and know there is a chair waiting for you at “March in Montana.”

Jay Moore, Red Elephant Mountain from Big Creek Lake, newly installed in Dan Messerli’s home.

Back at home, I immediately found a spot and hung up our new painting. The memories from that day and weekend will be re-lived every time it is seen – the excitement, the camaraderie, the thrill of victory and the sorrows of defeat experienced are now a part of the painting. It makes all the work I put in even more rewarding.

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