Elizabeth Guheen had no idea if the plan she and the Bair Family Trust had set in motion would work. But as the hammer struck and the bid of $350,000 was accepted on Lot 126 at the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction last weekend in Reno, her phone started dinging with text messages. “The Young Chief,” painted in 1905 by Joseph Henry Sharp, would return home.
“The elation I felt when it happened, it’s hard for me to find words for,” said Guheen, director and chief curator for 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 at their encampment by the renowned western artist, painted during the time Sharp lived 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 rancher and philanthropist, who donated the painting to the Billings Commercial Club — the predecessor to the Billings Chamber of Commerce — as a thank you for hosting a show of Sharp’s work. Sharp was a prolific painter who documented the life of many tribes in the region, painting with precision and intimacy gained by living among Native people, including the Puebloan people in Taos in the late 1800s and with the Apsáalooke on the Crow Reservation in the early 1900s.
Billings Chamber leadership had been interested in selling “The Young Chief” for many years, and in 2008 they received a $1 million offer for the painting, said John Brewer, Billings Chamber president, 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 hit that level, the board began discussing how we could put that money to use,” he told the Gazette.
The Bair Family Trust expressed interest in the painting in 2008, but its desire to have “The Young Chief” traces back to 1963 when Bair’s daughter, Alberta (a philanthropist herself and namesake for the Alberta Bair Theater in Billings) wrote to the Billings Chamber expressing her and her sister Marguerite’s desire to have the painting returned to the family and to replace it “with another painting of equal value and beautifully framed,” Alberta wrote. “The reason we want the painting [is that] Mr. Sharp was a personal friend of ours and we would like to have it to place with our Indian collection.”
The response, signed by George M. Washington, president of the Billings Chamber of Commerce at the time, said returning the painting would “indicate a lack of appreciation for us to dispose of the painting in any manner.”
“I believe that the chamber’s response was very sincere, but these things don’t last,” Guheen told Montana Free Press after this weekend’s auction. “New generations come on and rewrite history.”
The economic downturn in 2009 paused the chamber’s intent to sell the painting until this year when its board unanimously voted to sell the painting at the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction. It wasn’t until MTFP in June published an article regarding the possible sale of the painting that the Bair trustees learned that the painting would be auctioned.
Sharp, who was born in Ohio and studied in Europe, spent nearly 80 years painting and observing Plains Indian life. His portraits of Indigenous people were collected by entities such as the Smithsonian because of their detailed depiction of Native American clothing and culture. “The Young Chief,” which features an Apsáalooke family in golden light outside a teepee, is a touted example of such a style and represented a departure from Sharp’s contemporaries, who were painting the more violent clashes in the American West. Sharp painted from within, portraying everyday life and ceremony.
Sharp came to know the Bair family while living at Crow Agency. Bair, who ranched and had a lease on the Crow reservation for raising sheep, befriended the painter and became a loyal patron. After Bair died in 1943, his daughters kept in touch with Sharp, and it is their affinity for him that could be the reason Alberta wrote to the Billings Chamber in the 1960s, requesting the painting back. That request was refused, and while the conversation was rekindled in 2008 there has been no movement since then to return the painting, according to Guheen.
“The chamber has made no effort to reach out to the Bair Family Museum Board of Advisors or to ensure that this painting, a cherished part of Montana’s history, remains in the state and be enjoyed by the public,” Guheen said.
Brewer, Billings Chamber’s president, 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 polled its 1,100 members several years ago “and nearly 75% directed the Chamber board to sell.”
After learning of the sale, Guheen said, there was no doubt among the Bair trust’s board members how to proceed.
“It was because of the letter,” Guheen said. “That was the linchpin. It was like, ‘Now’s your chance, Alberta. We are trying to get it for you.’”
The board invited Thomas Minckler, a Billings historian and art buyer who initially raised concerns about the sale of the painting, to recommend a course of action and represent the organization at the auction. A limit was set by the board on what it would bid — an amount not disclosed to MTFP — that also factored in the 21% fee to the auction house on top of the winning bid. The board has a fiduciary responsibility to the trust, Guheen said, “and you have to follow it rigidly, and they are careful about that.” Minckler, acting on behalf of the Bair Family Trust, made the highest bid at $350,000 and purchased “The Young Chief” for a final price of $423,500.
“I felt at peace and a relief knowing that we had saved that piece of Montana’s history,” Minckler told MTFP. “Charlie Bair and Alberta would be very happy knowing 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 being thrown from horses, portraits of warriors, oracles, culture bearers and scenes portraying Indigenous culture, 14 paintings by Sharp were on the auction block 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 Sharp paintings sold at or undervalue, and four failed to meet the minimum bid and were not sold.
“The market right now for Joseph Henry Sharp and other Taos artists is soft,” Minckler said. “They sold for the low end of the estimate. Usually at the Coeur d’Alene auction, art goes above the asking price.”
The Billings Chamber sold three works of art at the auction – the Sharp, a Warren Rollings oil painting featuring a Native American man smoking a pipe, and a charcoal sketch titled “Indian Head” by LeRoy Greene. The Rollings sold for $12,000 and the Green for $600, and the trio of paintings netted $362,600. Brewer indicated the proceeds will be gifted to the newly formed Chamber Foundation, and interest from the funds will be used to “support leadership development, education, talent attraction and retention, and community development initiatives.”
“They were setting up a nonprofit foundation by selling a piece of Montana’s heritage,” Guheen said. “They didn’t see anything wrong with that.”
The driving forces for the trust and the board of advisors to purchase “The Young Chief” were its artistic value and the value and the history to the Bair family, said Gerry Fagan, president of the board of advisers of the Charles M. Bair Family Trust.
“We are happy that we were able to obtain the painting and keep it where the public can see it,” Fagan said. “We really did like the idea of keeping this in Montana because of its Montana roots. Speaking for myself, I didn’t want to see it go into a private collection where Montanans would never see it again.”
The Bair Family Museum is in the old ranch house in Martinsdale where the family’s art collection, Native American artifacts and weavings, collections of photographs, and furnishings from Europe are displayed. The museum even has Alberta’s characteristic 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 charitable organization that maintains the museum and ranchlands, funds scholarships each year for eight students living in Meagher or Sweet Grass counties where the family ranch operated and grants money to Meagher, Sweet Grass and Yellowstone counties.
“Charlie Bair was very influential here and in other counties too, and so was Alberta – she really led a fascinating life and to create the trust that she did upon her death was an amazing sacrifice, and it is paying dividends today with its trust and charitable contributions,” Fagan said.
The Bair Family Museum is open daily in the summer through Labor Day; it’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays the rest of the year. Guheen has already picked out a spot for the painting in the museum’s entry.
“If we were fortunate enough to keep in Montana,” she said, “I want people to be able to see it right away.”