Famous depiction of Custer’s Last Stand makes first-ever auction appearance in Heritage Wild West event

  • DALLAS, Texas
  • /
  • June 06, 2012

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John Mulvany’s massive 11x20 foot oil painting “Custer’s Last Rally,” completed in 1881 and a Pop Culture phenomenon in its day, prepares for June 10 auction in Dallas.
Heritage Auctions

Custer's Last Rally, 1881, John Mulvany ‘s epic 11 x 20 foot oil painting will sell at auction on June 10 at Heritage Auctions, part of the company’s Legends of The Wild West Signature® Auction. The painting, a truly blockbuster achievement, represents one of the great “One-Hit Wonders” of American painting and a cultural phenomenon in its time. The painting is expected to bring $200,000+ and is part of a special Custer grouping in the auction.

“John Mulvany had his proverbial 15 minutes of fame when he unveiled his masterwork, Custer's Last Rally, in March of 1881,” said Tom Slater, Director of Americana Auctions at Heritage. “His trajectory might well be compared with that of another one-hit wonder, Archibald MacNeil Willard, who created one of the most iconic American paintings, Spirit of '76, for the 1876 Centennial Celebration.”

For some years Mulvany scratched out a living as an artist, mainly doing portraits. In 1879, he was inspired to paint a definitive scene of the Little Bighorn battle, in which George Armstrong Custer perished with his entire command.  Custer is strong and determined as the focal point with all of his adjutants, facing death bravely, with defiance, and hopeless surrounded by scores of attacking Indians.

It took two years to complete and immediately achieved wide recognition. The first major exhibition of the work occurred in New York City, where it created a sensation.

“There were no movies back then, certainly, and no pictures of the battle,” said Slater, “and yet Little Bighorn loomed huge in the recent memory of the nation. People were simply clambering to see this painting as it brought to life all the frantic combat which the public had envisioned at Little Bighorn.”

Large crowds paid an admission price of 50 cents (25 cents for children) – no small sum in its day – to gaze, mesmerized, at the painting. Walt Whitman waxed poetic about it in a published review; Custer's widow, Libbie, was said to have swooned at the sight of it. A popular print of the painting was made and sold and, for a decade, periodic additional exhibitions helped provide Mulvany with a livelihood.

Over the years it has had periods of exhibition interspersed with long years in storage. In 1926, it was on display at the Heinz Ocean City Pier in Ocean City, New Jersey. In the 1950s it was shown for several years at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum and, most notably, in 1967 at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth. In recent years it has been intermittently on the market, though, always with a seven-figure price tag.

In 2009, eminent art appraiser Paul Rossi, former director of the Gilcrease Museum, declared the work to be “an invaluable collector's piece in American Western art and a true national treasure.”

“Like Archibald MacNeil Williams, John Mulvany produced only one masterwork,” said Slater. “He became a drunken derelict and committed suicide by jumping into New York's East River in 1906. Although he painted for years, little of his work has survived. This one shining moment, however, was enough to ensure his place in the pantheon of American historical painters. It’s a magnificent historical work that will be known and admired for generations.”

Further Custer and Custer-related lots include:

George Armstrong Custer – His Personal Cavalry Saddle from the Indian Wars Period, with Terrific Provenance: It was obtained by legendary collector Lawrence Frost from the Custer family in 1941. It’s hard to imagine a more meaningful relic of Custer than his personal Indian Wars-era cavalry saddle. Here is something with an important and personal connection to this legendary Western figure, the saddle on which he undoubtedly sat while he did what he loved best, and for which he is best remembered. Opening bid: $10,000.

Colt Revolver Found at the Little Bighorn Battle Site in 1935: A Most evocative relic, this 1860 model Colt Army revolver, made in late 1867, was undoubtedly brought into the battle by an Indian combatant, as Custer's men were using a newer model. It was found along the banks of the Little Bighorn at the site of the battle, buried in the ground with only the butt visible. The river was unusually high at the time of the battle, and it seems probable that the weapon was dropped into the water and lost. But at the time it was recovered, the river was lower, allowing it to be detected. What is particularly interesting about this gun is the fact it is still loaded (albeit with corroded and non-functional bullets). Opening bid: $5,000.

Fine Plains Indians Saddle, with Accompanying Research Attributing It to the Cheyenne War Chief Two Moons, a Major Figure at Little Bighorn, and One of Fraser's Three Models for the Buffalo Nickel:  Two Moons (1842-1917) was present at virtually every significant skirmish or battle between the Cheyenne and U.S. Army forces, and was one of the significant war chiefs of the Cheyenne at Little Bighorn. Although accounts are conflicting, some name him as the man who took Custer's life. Other accounts include him among the prominent Cheyenne who prevented the ritual mutilation of Custer's body after the battle. Opening bid: $5,000.

 Heritage Auctions is far and away the largest auction house founded in the United States, and the world’s third largest, with annual sales of more than $800 million, and 700,000+ online bidder members. For more information about Heritage Auctions, and to join and receive access to a complete record of prices realized, with full-color, enlargeable photos of each lot, please visit HA.com


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