There’s not much about Cody, Wyoming, that’s not Old West — rodeo, its namesake William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and a real frontier town attitude. That goes for how Cody does art.
It’s Rendezvous Royale Week in the Rodeo Capital of the World, where artists and art patrons from across the United States herd into Wyoming for a week of Western art culminating in a million-dollar weekend.
This weekend’s 42nd Buffalo Bill Art Show and Sale will culminate in the annual live auction Saturday, followed by a quick draw auction the next morning. And for a moment, the who’s who of Western art will be focused on this corner of northwestern Wyoming and an electric atmosphere as some serious bidders buy some seriously fine art.
The show and sale has brought more than $1 million a year for almost a decade to benefit local nonprofits. Even in 2020, when the live auction was drastically scaled down because of COVID-19, it still managed to bring in more than $700,000.
But it takes more than a collection of paintings and sculptures paraded through a big tent to turn an annual event into an enduring legacy with a reputation for buying and selling art for big bucks.
Going Once, Going For Thousands
In 2022, proceeds from the auction sold for $1.079 million in one evening, with 96 of 104 pieces of art selling.
The show’s highest-selling piece was “Wyoming Buffalo,” a 20-by-24-inch oil painting created by prominent Wyoming artist Tucker Smith. When the bidding was over, the piece had sold for $55,000.
The oil painting “By the Light, Psalms 75:15-17” by Thomas Kegler won the Spirit of Buffalo Bull Art Show and Sale award last year and sold for $25,000 at auction.
Troy Black of Black and Associates Auctioneers Inc., the go-to company for live Western art auctions, handles the auctioneering.
Thompson describes Black as “a master” in his craft who “teases people along” to keep the bids coming. But even he and his team have a personal stake in the auction's success.
“They know the audience and they know the artists. I think that’s a magical thing,” she said.
In 2022, an oil painting by Mark McKenna titled “Embrace” was tagged with a market value of $16,000. When the bidding got interesting, Black kept sending them higher with wry humor and personal callouts to bidders. The piece sold for $40,000.
Meanwhile, “Great Horned Owl,” a bronze-on-wood sculpture by Paul Rhymer, started bidding at $5,250. It sold for $20,000 after another exciting back-and-forth facilitated by Black.
Black also handled the Quick Draw auction the next morning, raising an additional $89,000. Between the auctions and other associated events, more than $1.6 million was raised.
The combined appraisal value of all 104 pieces in the 42nd Buffalo Bill Art Show and Sale is more than $1.24 million.
The highest-appraised piece is “Sounds of the Night,” a 5.6-foot bronze sculpture by artist Vic Payne, at $49,000.
An oil painting titled “Horse Power” by Santiago Michalek is the highest appraised painting at $38,000. "Dusk on the Lower Salt River," an oil painting by Nicholas Coleman and the winner of the 2023 “The Spirit of the Buffalo Bill Art Show" award, was appraised at $28,000.
Personal relationships and contemporary artists are fine on canvas or in clay and bronze, but the Buffalo Bill Art Show and Sale consistently translates feelings into fundraising.
Kathy Thompson has been the director of the Buffalo Bill Art Show and Sale for the last 16 years. For her, the reason why the show has gained a national following and raises more money each year is simple: loyalty.
“Our patrons are very loyal to the uniqueness of Cody,” she said. “They want to support a nice little town in the Rockies. We’re not as flashy as some of the towns in Wyoming or Montana, but the red carpet is rolled out every year. It’s so special, and they love it.”
This year’s event is another sellout. Nearly 600 people will sit under a massive tent to participate in the live auction. There are 106 art pieces for sale, which means most people won’t leave with a new piece for their collections.
Thompson sees the auction as more than an electrifying fundraiser.
“If I have 103 pieces of art for sale in the live auction, 103 people could buy. So, what is everyone else doing here?” she said. “They’re having a big reunion with friends, family and artists. I think that’s why we’re able to raise the money we do.”
All the pieces in the Buffalo Bill Art Show and Sale were created by contemporary Western artists. The presence and participation of the living artists adds another layer to the show and auction, a personal connection.
A handful of people will participate in the auction online. However, Thompson says that can’t and will never be a viable replacement for a seat under the tent.
“People say, ‘Why aren’t you just online? That’s the way of the future.’ I say come to the tent and see a party,” she said.
The Heart Of Western Art
In 16 years of managing the show, Thompson has developed a personal relationship with the artist and patrons. This is another secret to the success of the Buffalo Bill Art Show and Sale since Thompson takes the extra steps to ensure success before a single piece of art is submitted.
Thompson’s personal relationship with artists brings many of them to Cody for the live auction. When she started managing the event, about 20 artists attended. In 2023, more than 70 artists will be under the tent.
Several artists have developed personal relationships with patrons, directly impacting who’s bidding and buying. With that kind of investment, it’s no wonder the auction consistently earns as much as it does.
Even the artists are generous. The 2023 auction includes 70 pieces donated to the show by artists, which means they will forgo commissions.
Just how much this year’s auction will raise after the final bid comes in could be much more than the appraised value of $1.24 million. It also could be less.
“Who could guess? You don’t get to know what’s going to happen until people are in the tent,” Thompson said. “The magic is being in the tent with families, friends, artists and patrons who love the arts. That’s the magic of what we do.”