It's 6 p.m Friday, October 19. You've paid your $125 admission fee to the 25th Annual Cowboy Artists of America Exhibition and Sale. A sea of Stetsons crowds the exhibition area. Beside each painting and sculpture stands a man and a little box with a slot on top. The man is a volunteer from the PAM's Men's Arts Council. The box is for your "intent-to-purchase" slip.

It's like a conceptual-art work, with 136 men and 136 boxes, one before each piece. For an hour and a half, you can wander around with your price list (prices are fixed: no bidding) and a bunch of slips, deciding which pieces you want to take a chance on. Then at 7:30 p.m., a horn sounds. Viewing time is over and the drawing begins.

The MAC men at each artist's exhibit draw two names out of each box. These are for the lucky two who have first and second right of refusal. If your name comes up, you have fifteen minutes to write your check. Good luck.

As E.B. Lane & Associates, the CAA's publicity agent, writes in its press release, "This luck of the draw system, an old Western tradition, tips its hat to the Old West, but more importantly, it allows first-time buyers equal opportunity with collectors to purchase works by their favorite artists."

What actually happens is like a chess game, or an illustration from mathematical game theory. You've got people hanging around certain boxes, counting the number of slips going in. You've got other people, knowing they're being watched, not hanging around certain boxes, waiting until the last minute. You've got collectors giving other collectors the side eye, speculating on who's got the bigger bankroll this night. You wonder if that unknown person over there is acting as an agent for a recognizable face. And so on.

But it seems to work. This year 78 percent of the show sold in two hours, raking in a record $1,675,425. And the museum keeps selling pieces almost every day--an additional $23,000 worth during the next few days. Since a lot of the bronzes are multiple editions, you might still be able to snap up a little pair of boots (called "A Month's Wages") for $750.

The annual Cowboy Artists of America show is the only one at which the museum assumes the role of seller, but it does so for a very good reason--money. The Men's Arts Council, after taking its 15 percent cut of sales and deducting the expenses of mounting the show, usually raises $200,000 for the museum every year. Smile when you say that, pardner. See you next year!


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