Where Were They Then?-Part IV

As with the last chapter of Where Were They Then? this post features another work by Arizona’s first cowboy artist, Lon Megargee.

Brian Lebel’s Old West Events held an auction in January for the art collection of Dick Flood Sr. and Daro Flood family in which the painting shown below was offered. I was fortunate enough to be the winning bidder on this lot -which was made on behalf of a client. But if not for my client’s astuteness I would have missed the opportunity all together.


Initially it was an easy piece to overlook. Reasons include

A) the muted palette made the subject hard to discern in the thumbnail image in the online catalog
B) the artist was listed as “Unknown”, so it was “unsigned”
C) the estimate was only $500-$1000 and
D) the medium was gouache, a water based paint.

So let’s drill down a little further starting with Reason B.

If there is one thing I have learned in my 20 years as an art dealer is unsigned art work, no matter how strong the provenance or the evidence for attribution, typically sells for 10-20% of the amount as signed artwork by the same artist of similar subject matter, quality and medium.

Why would an artist not sign his or her artwork? The reasons vary. James (Looking for Jimmy) Swinnerton had a bad habit of not signing his “specialty pieces” (a term common in the cartoon art world for a work that was done for reasons other than commercial publication.)

See the two examples below. The child with the dog is signed (a rarity with Jimmy’s specialty pieces) while the one with the two children is unsigned.

In Jimmy’s case his specialty pieces were typically done for friends and family members. The one with the two children was a gift to Gretchen O’Hagan, Jimmy’s great-niece. In most cases he never bothered to sign them because the receiving parties knew where they came from and in most cases the recipients never thought about selling.

Gunnar Widforss, one of the greatest watercolorists of all time, rarely signed his oil paintings. I was told by a person knowledgeable about the artist (both his work and his life) the reason for this was Widforss took up oil painting later in his career and -as crazy as it sounds-was not sure enough about the quality of his work in the medium. Thus he did not want to have his name associated with any of his oils.

The example below illustrates the absurdity of his lack of confidence. It is also indicative of my experience in the market regarding unsigned artwork. This piece recently went at auction for less than $8,000, much less than his watercolors of equivalent size and subject matter typically realize.

Gunnar Widforss Grand Canyon 13″ x 10″ Oil on panel

That brings me to Reason D. Watercolors and other water based paints by an artist almost always sell for much less than oils of similar size and subject matter.

This is for a number of reasons. Some based on facts, others on erroneous perceptions -that’s a lengthy discussion for another time. But I refer to what Fran Elliott once told me when I was first starting out in the business. “Painting a watercolor is a great way to turn a $5,000 painting into a $1,000 painting.” Over the years I have found the validity of her premise to be as constant as the futility of trying to sell unsigned art work.

So let’s move onto A and C.

If it sounds like I’m making excuses with A (the muted palette caused me to overlook the piece in online auction catalog) it’s because well, I am. My client only expressed an interest the day before the auction. Actually until said customer brought the auction to my attention I had no idea the collection was being sold off. So I was pressed for time and when one is trying to review over 200 items in a short period of time there is a tendency to miss a few things.

This same individual was also responsible for my C excuse -the low estimate. This client tends to be real high end. Usually there has to be another zero on the low end of the estimate for it to even register on his radar and, accordingly in this case, mine.

So now that we know the reasons why I almost missed out let’s go into how we were able to wake up and realize what we were looking at.

River Canyon of Gold by Lon Megargee 24″ x 18″ Oil on canvas
Signature from River Canyon of Gold (lower right) by Lon Megargee
Lower right of Grand Canyon by Lon Megargee aka Untitled, Unsigned Landscape by an Unknown Artist

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Or in this case many thousands of dollars.

My client just happens to own the painting, River Canyon of Gold (above) by Lon Megargee. Notice the signature in the lower right and the similarity to the date and symbol on the “Unknown Artist” piece shown above. They are almost identical.

After conferring we decided we were going to bid on the “Untitled: Landscape” by “Unknown Artist.”

It was almost certainly a Megargee we agreed. I theorized his initials (as with the River Canyon of Gold signature) were covered by the frame. We were hopeful we might even pick it up for a song, since there was a good chance no one else knew what we knew.

Based on the hammer price it’s safe to say we were wrong. There was at least one other bidder who either knew or suspected as much.

I won’t say what the final amount was but suffice to say it was well above what unsigned works by unknown artists typically go for -especially watercolors.

After picking up the piece a few days later I immediately returned home and removed the frame. It turned out there was no signature beneath the logo, but it was signed on the back (aka Verso.) A verso signature is just as good as a signature on the front. Our unknown, unsigned landscape by an unknown artist turned out to be a signed Grand Canyon scene by Lon Megargee.

It is well documented that Megargee made an extended painting trip to the Grand Canyon in 1914. His companions were Emry Kopta and the immortal William Robinson (W.R.) Leigh -aka the Sagebrush Rembrandt. This painting is just one more piece of evidence of what must have been a remarkable expedition.

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