Lions and Tigers and Bears, on Canvas

Wildlife art is becoming increasingly popular—and valuable

By Tobin Hack

Fire Storm (1975), by Bob Kuhn, sold for $657,000 at a recent auction—three times the expected amount.

If you’ve been looking for a high-end painting sure to impress your most urbane friends, you probably haven’t been considering wildlife art. In the art world, works that have traditionally claimed the highest prices and most cachet have fallen into the Post-war, Contemporary, Impressionist, and Modern categories. While a piece by Andy Warhol or Picasso might sell for millions of dollars, wildlife art usually doesn’t break $50,000.  

Adam Harris, chief curator for the National Museum of Wildlife Art, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, believes the genre is undervalued. “Wildlife and nature are so important to our sense of national identity, that you would think it would sell for more,” he says.

But last week, it did. The unexpectedly high sales figures from a recent auction signal a growing appreciation for the genre, which may be fueled in part by mounting public concern for the environment. On November 28, renowned Christies Auction House sold 138 paintings and sculptures, in a Sporting and Wildlife Art Sale, for a combined $6,254,963.

The outcome was thrilling, says James Hastie, vice president for Sporting and Wildlife Art at Christies. “For me, it was really an eye opener to see how good the work is out there,” he says. “I can’t wait to pull together the next sale.”

In addition to drawing attention to the genre, the sale also broke world auction records for prominent wildlife artists including Bob Kuhn, James Lippet Clark, and Dylan Lewis, says Clare McKeon, vice president of Sporting and Wildlife at Christies.

The highest-selling piece in the auction was Fire Storm (1975), by Kuhn, who died in October. Specialists expected the piece to go for $180,000 to $220,000, but an undisclosed US institution took it home for $657,000. The piece depicts five mule deer running to escape a raging forest fire. Fire Storm is atypical for Kuhn, and for the wildlife art sector at large, in that it places the main action not with the animal subjects, but in the greater ecosystem burning and replenishing itself behind them. “The animals are a lot smaller than you would normally see in a Kuhn painting, and it’s really the fire that’s the subject,” says Harris.

Fire Storm’s rugged Western landscape also evokes an iconic familiarity—something that may help to explain the rising interest in wildlife art and a related genre, Western American art, which also often features fauna. People tend to collect paintings of animals and landscapes for which they already feel a sentimental or nostalgic appreciation, says McKeon.

That seems to be the case for Doug Miller, the wildlife art collector and a passionate conservationist who sold Fire Storm and some 60 other paintings and sculptures in the sale. The Doug and Ellen Miller Collection is one of the largest private collections of wildlife art in America. Of the pieces he sent to auction, Miller told Christies: “We’ve jeopardized these animals and it’s our great responsibility to carve out parcels of the earth where they’ll be able to survive. Beautiful art is probably the best way to arouse reverence and awe toward the creatures still living in freedom.”

Whether or not conservation is an inspiration for wildlife artists themselves is questionable, but there is a connection, according to James Hastie. “Wildlife art has been put on the map, and there has to be a link between the conservation side and the art side,” says Hastie.

And Miller likely isn’t the only collector whose interest in the environment influences his interest in art. “I do think that the rise in [wildlife art] prices goes hand in hand with a greater concern for the environment, a greater concern for endangered species,” says Harris. “People it seems are realizing that some of these creatures may not be around forever.”

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