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Collecting Arizona: How Gary Fillmore and David Picerne Tracked Down the State’s Greatest Paintings

David Picerne, a real estate developer, and Gary Fillmore, an art appraiser and owner of the Blue Coyote Gallery, went on a hunt to find the state’s very best landscape art, seeking out offerings from the Taos artists, Santa Fe railroad artists, California Impressionists and our own Smoketree Painters. Currently on view in Wickenburg (through March 4, 2018) is their comprehensive display of landscape art from around Arizona.

Oscar Strobel, Superstition Thunderstorm. All images courtesy of The Picerne Collection of Arizona Landmark Art.

There is plenty of overlap between the California desert and Arizona artists. To understand the Mecca Mud Hills…you have to be versed in the Superstitions, as well. Gary Fillmore knows both. He has written books on California artists Jimmy Swinnerton and Marjorie Reed, as well as Grand Canyon artists and other topics. Below, Fillmore discusses the links between the regions, as well as how the landmark collection came together.

How and when did you and David meet? 

April 2005. It was during an exhibition at the Blue Coyote Gallery which featured the art work of Jessie Benton Evans, the Younger and the Elder, titled  a “A Century of Arizona Landscapes”. Dave Picerne and his wife Doreen came in the last day of the exhibit about an hour before closing time. I found both of them very engaging, but I had no idea who they were or what they did. After about 30 minutes of viewing and conversation Dave pointed to a small Claire Dooner Phillips painting by the doorway. I think we were asking $1,000. He told me if I knocked $100 off the price he would take it, so I said “sure”.

Not long after they had walked out the door I remember thinking to myself “Nice couple, but I don’t think they’ll turn out to be very big collectors. This guy has to ask for a $100 discount.” Needless to say over a decade later I think my first impression turned out to be very inaccurate.

How did David get the idea for a collection of Arizona‘s best traditional landscapes? 

David [president and CEO of the Picerne Real Estate Group–ed.] wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before. There were already a lot of great collections that featured California and New Mexico landscapes and artists. At the time we started the only collection I’m aware of that was focused on Arizona artists was Fran Elliott’s collection of early Arizona women artists (pre-1940.) And there were notable Grand Canyon collections of course, i.e. the Smithsonian’s Thomas Moran Collection.

I was lucky enough to introduce Fran to Dave early on in the process –I think it was in the fall of 2005. She invited us to her home in Sedona to view her collection. After that it clicked and the endeavor really picked up steam. Dave knew exactly what he wanted the collection to be from that point onward.

Also, once Dave decided on the theme of the collection we believed the timing would be good.  At the time we started to ramp up Arizona’s Centennial (2012) was less than six years away.

Ernest Blumenschein, Roosevelt Dam

What was the strategy you employed? What were your parameters? 

To a painting, we pretty much followed the following criteria. The piece had to be

  • Of a recognizable Arizona landmark or landscape
  • Have been created prior to 1940
  • Have been painted by a listed artist (Askart.com)

We did make exceptions in a few cases to rules 2 and 3: In the case of rule 2 an exception was made if Dave really loved the piece; rule 3 if the painting was very well executed–on “the merits of the piece” as we say in the art business. There are several paintings in the collection by underappreciated or unlisted artists.

Where did you look? Did the search involve travel or fieldwork? 

Most of the collection was assembled in the first four years (2005-08). At that time we were acquiring from a variety of sources including auction houses, other galleries, the internet, art shows etc. So yeah, back then there was definitely some travel involved, primarily in Arizona, California and New Mexico.

Back in 09, when things were really slow, I made some trips to the Superstitions and Monument Valley and various places around the Phoenix area to see if I could locate where the artists were standing as they painted or sketched the field studies. I even created a couple blog posts with photographs of what the same viewpoint looks like now. [See Gary‘s blog below–ed.]

What was the very first piece you collected? 

The Claire Dooner Phillips piece I mentioned previously was Dave’s first painting.

Claire Dooner Phillips, Blossoms

In 1997 I purchased a Marjorie Reed nocturne of the Butterfield stage arriving at the Mission Camp station in Arizona at an auction: 30×40 oil on canvas. With shipping costs and auctioneer I think it cost me about $2,500. At the time I was concerned because I was afraid I had overpaid for the piece which in retrospect is hilarious. Reeds of similar size and subject matter have routinely sold at auction in the $10K-$20K range.

I still own it. Of course it never occurred to me at the time that I would be writing a biography about the artist less than ten years after making the purchase.

Were there any sublime or terrible moments in the collecting journey? 

There were some humorous moments.

If Dave and I were at an auction together I would be the one doing the bidding –with clear instructions on how high I could go of course.

In 2006 we set a record for a Maynard Dixon 20×16 (Red Rocks and Cactus…it was over $330K when auctioneers fees were included.) I was the one holding the paddle when the winner was declared.

It was at Bonhams in San Francisco and the room was packed. Every person there thought I was the one who had purchased the piece. It was amazing how many people were suddenly interested in becoming my friend!

I guess the most “terrible” moment occurred with a Marjorie Thomas Camelback. At the time we had come to a verbal agreement for a given amount with an out of town dealer.

When I arrived at the dealer’s gallery(who shall remain nameless –and let’s just say it was not a short drive) he had raised the price by $3,000. He told me I had the original asking price wrong, that I had “misunderstood” him.

Marjorie Thomas, Camelback Mountain

At the time I had done so many other deals previously with this guy so I didn’t think to confirm his asking price via email or any other written form. It was all decided with a short  phone conversation.

This particular dealer had a reputation of being a little shady although, until then, he had always been totally straight with me. We got into a rather heated argument and I remember thinking to myself during our exchange, “so this is why everyone says he’s a bleep. He really is a bleep!”

When I saw he wasn’t going to budge I went outside and called Dave on my cell phone. Let’s just say it wasn’t a pleasant conversation. But Dave also knew the guy’s reputation wasn’t good so he had no problem believing my version of events.

When Dave finished his rant I asked him what he wanted to do. I told him I was perfectly willing to walk away. He told me to pay the new asking price along with some rather explicit instructions on what the dealer could do to himself.

At the time I felt really bad but years later I think it’s pretty funny. The piece is one of the premier pieces in the collection and it’s been featured in several exhibitions and a couple books. I would have hated to see us pass on it because of a mere $3,000.

Like Mark Twain said, “Humor is tragedy plus time.”  I have to say I don’t know if Dave thinks the story is funny now or not–I never asked him.

Joseph Henry Sharp, Grand Canyon

Did any of the artists prove elusive? If so, what are the missing pieces you may still be looking for? 

There is a companion piece to the Joseph Henry Sharp Grand Canyon shown here–identical size, same palette, slightly different perspective.  I stumbled across it during one my trips to California but I couldn’t convince the dealer to part with it. Hopefully it will come on the market someday.

Then there are the “other two” Blumenscheins. There are a total of four documented Earnest Blumenscheins with Arizona subject matter–Midgely Bridge and Roosevelt Dam are two, the other two are of Oak Creek Canyon scenes. Abe Hays (Arizona West Galleries) owned both of them and I saw them in person many years ago. As far as I know they are still in his collection.

Ernest Blumenschein, Midgley Bridge

Why did you decide to focus on Arizona landmarks?  

Arizona never had an artists community prior to World War II. There were very few painters who called Arizona home.

However what became apparent very early on in the process of putting the collection together was there had been numerous artists from various schools and parts of the world in the early 20th century and late 19th century that were attracted to Arizona strictly for its subject matter i.e., the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, the Superstition Mountains.

We figured by focusing on paintings where the primary subject matter was Arizona landmarks it would serve as an historical archive for notable artists who had visited the state. It would also help foster an appreciation for the Arizona scenery which is both beautiful and unique.

Are any of David’s family members involved in the hunt for Arizona art?

None are serious collectors yet. However the eldest daughter Danielle has been in the art business since graduating from Arizona State. She was the Director for the Blue Coyote Gallery for over six years (2007-2013) and she is now the Development Director for the Scottsdale Artists School.

Has the collection increased awareness of traditional Arizona landscape art? 

That’s hard to quantify because I don’t have a reference point for measurement. If the reactions of the museum crowd and serious collectors are any indication then I would say definitely yes, although it’s been a slow process. According to the Desert Caballeros Museum this has been one of the most popular exhibitions they’ve had.

Tell us about the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg. 

I describe it a regional museum focusing on art and history of the American West–small but very impressive given its size. They have an enthusiastic and dedicated staff. They also have an annual show featuring contemporary Western women artists that’s been growing in popularity by the year. It’s definitely worth a visit, if only to see the permanent collections which are very remarkable.

Birger Sandzen, Grand Canyon

What are your favorite pieces in the current exhibit? 

Of course I’m going to say “that’s really hard to answer because there are so many great pieces.” But then I’m going to add the Birger Sandzen of the Grand Canyon. I think it’s only one of a few Birger Sandzen Grand Canyon pieces–if that.

Then there’s the Gunnar Widforss Grand Canyon and the James Swinnerton Agathla Needle. In the case of both artists the respective subject matter was clearly their favorites. It’s not known how many Gunnar Widforss Grand Canyons and James Swinnerton Agathla Needles exist in total. But these in my opinion are so well executed they’re my personal favorites.

Gunnar Widforss, Grand Canyon

There are artists in the collection who also painted in California and the Palm Springs area. Who are those you know of? 

James Swinnerton is the first that comes to mind. He wintered in Palm Springs and spent the summers on the Colorado Plateau for literally decades and created a large body of work that featured both regions. The same can be said about Conrad Buff, Marjorie Reed, and John Hilton.

James Swinnerton, Agathla Needle Monument Valley

There are Gunnar Widforss and Carl Oscar Borg paintings with Colorado Desert subject matter, although they are rare. I’m not sure if Anna Hills, John Marshall Gamble, Edgar Payne and Hanson Puthuff painted any Coachella Valley scenes, but all are very respected California impressionist (Eucalyptus School) artists.

Then of course there is Maynard Dixon.

Maynard Dixon, Red Rocks and Cactus

How should someone go about beginning his or her own collection of regional art?

It’s critical to have a theme. Early on Dave was pretty much just buying what he liked. As I mentioned earlier it all came together when I was fortunate enough to introduce Dave to Fran Elliott and her collection of early Arizona Women artists. [Fran Elliott died in Sedona in 2014–ed.]

That’s when his idea of focusing on Arizona Landmarks kicked in and we really started to get revved up.

The other suggestion I would make is only acquire quality pieces. It’s better to pay $10,000 for one quality piece than to acquire five mediocre paintings for $2,000 each.

But quality and high prices don’t always go together. Avoid overpaying for the signature on the canvas. Don’t neglect overlooked or underappreciated artists who left behind sizeable bodies of work. One of the aspects that struck me right away about the current exhibit is how well the Oscar Strobel and Erna Lange pieces looked hanging beside works by more famous artists like the Taos Society and notable California impressionists.

Erna Lange, Morning View Toward Phoenix

What has been the impact of this collection? 

I feel like it’s early in the game. I think the collection is just now starting to get the recognition it deserves. As recently as ten years ago when I first began approaching curators and sharing with them what we had put together the reaction was pretty much collective yawns. Now it’s mostly enthusiastic.

As time goes on and many parts of the state are more heavily developed it will naturally increase the appreciation. I anticipate the collection will be much appreciated long after I’m gone.

Gary Fillmore

See the exhibit All Over the Map: The Picerne Collection of Arizona Landmark Art at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg through March 4, 2018: https://westernmuseum.org/

Gary Fillmore’s blog: https://lookingforjimmy.com/2015/08/06/stunning-visual-evidence-phoenix-has-changed-in-the-last-century-where-were-they-then-part-ii/

…and gallery: http://www.bluecoyotegallery.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Responses to Collecting Arizona: How Gary Fillmore and David Picerne Tracked Down the State’s Greatest Paintings

  1. December 27, 2017 at 8:32 pm

    Great informative article. Interesting to learn how the artists interacted between geographical areas.

  2. glenda bayless
    December 28, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    love! the maynard dixon’ camelback red knob! thank you for going the extra sharing caring mile, dear ann! wonderful to read/know that desert art is held high!

  3. Denise Cross
    January 6, 2018 at 5:05 pm

    Thank you Ann for another excellent and extraordinary piece. I’d like to wish you a Very Happy, Healthy and Prosperous 2018!!

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