Published: July 6, 2021
Review and Onsite Photos by Walt Borton
SANTA FE – Walking through the doors of the Cody Old West Show’s Friday morning preview, June 25, prompted a moment of pause. This was not the typically lavish Cody Show. Instead, in what the trade calls a “pipe and drape” show, there was black drape in lieu of hard walled booths, minimal lighting and a sort of “make-do” approach to merchandising with tabletops and showcases. At first, it felt a little sparse. But that feeling lasted only a moment.
Enthusiasm on that opening morning show floor generated a vitality that propelled the event through three days of exuberant social and business interaction with sheer joy at its core. Exhibitors and visitors alike were unabashedly excited to be, once again, gathered around things they love and able to hug and laugh with cherished friends.
Since its creation in 1977 in Cody, Wyo., through the move to Santa Fe in 2017, the Cody Old West Show and Auction have earned rock-solid reputations as reliable and enjoyable marketplaces for authentic, first-quality collectibles, working gear, ephemera and art from Western Cowboy and Native American culture.
Like all the world’s arts, sports and social events, the show suspended 2020 activities, shut down by the first global pandemic in a century. Then, the uncertainty gripping America clouded if, how and where a 2021 Cody Show could occur. As late as March, officials told show producers Brian and Melissa Lebel that the Santa Fe Convention Center would remain shuttered.
Gambling that in-person event restrictions might loosen by June, the Lebels booked a large function room and preview space at the Santa Fe Hilton, adequate for both an online and socially distanced in-person auction. They also printed their illustrated auction catalog.
As New Mexico’s pandemic numbers improved, the convention center agreed to an event with 150 people, so Melissa planned for a dealer-only show the weekend of the auction. Not until mid-May did the city authorize an actual public event, but at just 33 percent of normal occupancy, a maximum of 600 people on the show floor.
The Lebels knew there was no time to build and light the elaborate hard-walled presentation their dealers and visitors were accustomed to, but in the spirit of the Old West, they saddled up and rode into uncertainty. Within hours of announcing an in-person show, the 70 booth spaces allowed were snapped up by 63 dealers. “We sold out almost instantly,” Melissa said, “only going to the waiting list to replace drop-outs a handful of times.”
The flow of the Cody Show was comfortingly familiar. Friday saw a steady stream of serious collectors and dealers well-known to each other and exhibitors. Saturday’s crowd was larger and traffic steadier than anyone expected. And while Sunday brought Santa Fe’s first rain in months, show traffic remained steady with both typical last-day bargain hunters and Santa Feans excited just to be out and about. “It’s hard to be sure with folks coming and going,” Melissa said of the show gate, “but our numbers suggest more than 1,500 people visited over the weekend, way more than we expected.”
The real surprise was the pace of business. It is rare that a show producer makes it through any weekend without being taken to task by at least one exhibitor having a bad turn. “It was fantastic,” Brian said, “I’ve never seen a whole room full of happy dealers. Sales reports were great, but there is more to it,” he continued, “Our shows are not just commercial – we put on social events and our folks come because they love this material, this way of life and because they enjoy being together. That made this year super special.”
And it didn’t hurt that months of pent-up buying fever burst from seasoned collectors and casual visitors alike. Rio Bravo Trading Company’s Randy Rodriguez of Santa Fe called his Saturday business “full guns, I’m thrilled with the way everything’s turning out.”
Mary Nyholm-Vidano of MC Presents, Niwot, Colo., said sales were “outstanding” and Terry Schurmeier, of Cowboys & Indians Antiques, Albuquerque, herself a producer of a major August show, said she was “thrilled to see business this strong already.”
Native American basketry expert Terry Dewald called sales “extremely good – but overall, I’m selling more textiles than baskets,” while jewelry specialist “Bud” Callahan said, “there hasn’t been a pause for me,” and antique arms dealer Dan Pauly described sales as “very very good.”
Buoyed by Saturday’s mood, exhibitors and visitors laughed and chatted as they walked the three blocks to the Historic Hilton for the 4 pm auction.
The “reservations only” room filled quickly. When auctioneer Troy Black opened bidding, there was a palpable burst of energy. Skilled at structuring successful auctions, Brian Lebel had designed the sale to open with a seemingly light-hearted grouping of Cowboy movie memorabilia, including film posters and Western film star cowboy hats.
When James Coburn’s Stetson went for more than twice its $800 high estimate, followed by Randolph Scott’s at $2,650 against an $800 estimate, it was clear where things were headed. Bidding remained ruthless for every hat from John Wayne’s to Gary Cooper’s, but the strongest included a surprise. Beyond cowboy circles, Ben Johnson is barely known. Still the World Champion Rodeo rider and film/television actor is definitely someone’s hero. His custom Resistol sold for $8,850, 14-times high estimate, finishing in a dead heat with the iconic dark brown inverted crowned hat worn by Clint Eastwood in his 1972 film Joe Kidd. Ben Johnson’s Stetson finished third among cowboy hats at $7,080.
With the pace set by the hats, every category was dominated by multiples of high estimates. A Tim Shinabarger bronze wall mount of a climbing bear took $3,853, twice the prediction. Belt buckles, bits, spurs and bridles all took higher than anticipated bids. Overall, only four of 384 lots in the live auction were bought in, yielding a 99 percent sell-through rate with all 120 lots online also selling. The final tally for the auction was a Santa Fe record at $1.1 million.
“We were really excited and had some amazing runaways,” Brian Lebel said, “because I think people all over are feeling more comfortable bidding online. Our reputation for offering only quality material has helped many overcome their reluctance to buy something they haven’t touched.”
Loading out on Sunday night it was clear to the dealers that they had not only seen an end to months without rain and weeks of relentless heat in Santa Fe, but had been part of Santa Fe’s relaunch for Summer 2021. As one savvy exhibitor described the show, it was “a very big and very happy three-day family reunion without a single argument. You can’t beat that!”
Auction prices include the buyer’s premium. For information, www.oldwestevents.com or 480-779-9478.
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