collecting-the-west-russellA Charles Russell fake was pulled before the C.M. Russell art auction on March 16-19 in Great Falls, Montana, but its replacement brought a bang-up price.

The pulled lot was a 1906 signed painting of Black Eagle, which had a letter of authenticity by Ginger Renner, widow of Frederic who created the most extensive archive of Russell’s work, dating from the age of 14 until the cowboy artist’s death in 1926. Black Eagle was replaced with Russell’s Plains Indian on Horseback, which earned the auction’s second-highest bid of $90,000. The record-setting auction brought in just under $2 million, surpassing its previous record of $1.54 million in 2004.

Ginger admits authenticating Black Eagle, but at the time, she didn’t have access to her files in Paradise Valley, Arizona, where she lives. The files record that a copy of the painting was made in the mid-1980s. After she called the auction house and confirmed the painting was a copy, the painting’s owner agreed to withdraw it.

Only two authentic Black Eagle Russells are known to exist:?one is owned by Ginger and the other is owned by a Texas collector. So how does Ginger know about the copy?

In 1982, a collector brought Black Eagle for Fred to review, which he authenticated, keeping a photograph of the painting in his records. A few years later, the collector told Fred he had loaned it to a dealer to make prints and wanted to confirm the original was returned. When Fred compared it to the photograph, he discovered two changes:?the signature block had slightly moved and Black Eagle’s headdress had only nine of the 10 requisite beads. Despite Fred’s finding, the collector refused to contact the FBI.

Two weeks later, the original found Fred by way of a Dallas, Texas, attorney who had purchased it for his office and was seeking verification that it was indeed a Russell. The painting matched the 1982 photograph.

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