By Pat Veltri
It was dubbed “Our Indian” by some of Columbian Elementary School’s students. For over six decades school children passed by it on a daily basis, custodians removed it occasionally and set it on the floor while painting the wall behind it, sometimes a curious student would stop and take a look and wonder about it, but mostly it went unnoticed – just a pretty picture hanging on the wall. “The Last Trail”, a painting by Taos artist Bert Phillips, was as much a part of the school as the books, chalkboards, pencils, rulers, classrooms, and the teachers and students themselves. It hung prominently in the entryway, blending quietly and unobtrusively into the landscape of the school, from 1920 until the early 1970s when Marv Newton moved to town to teach art at Raton High School.
Newton, these days a professional artist and retired educator, doesn’t recall the exact circumstances that brought him to Columbian School one particular day soon after he moved to Raton. “When I first walked in the door I looked up and saw the painting there”, Newton recalls. “It was hanging right in front of the hallway of Columbian School and I recognized right away that it was a Taos painter. I kind of looked at it for a few minutes, but it didn’t really register to me at the time that it was a valuable painting.” In the early 1970s, according to Newton, an ad in New Mexico Magazine offered potential purchasers a “set” of paintings, one by each of the ten original Taos artists, for the price of $110,000. Time and increased worth upped the price to $100,000 or more for one painting. Newton says, “So right at that point – I just happened to notice it – as time went on and the Taos paintings became more and more valuable, I started thinking there should be some way to get that painting off the wall.”
While visiting art galleries in Santa Fe, Newton took note of the latest pricing of comparable oil paintings by Bert Phillips. With this information at hand, he approached the Raton Superintendent of Schools, Russell Knudson, about Columbian’s painting. Newton says, “I saw what the paintings had been selling for so I talked to him and told him the painting was really valuable; we need to take care of it.” However, Knudson was indifferent. “He didn’t really register that it was of value,” states Newton.
Eventually with Newton’s persistence, Knudson’s interest was piqued. Some time later, while the two of them were attending a meeting in Santa Fe Knudson expressed a desire to visit a gallery to look at some paintings of the famous Taos artists. Newton suggested that they visit the Fenn Gallery. Forest Fenn, the gallery owner, was known for promoting the Taos artists. While the gallery did not have any of Phillips’s paintings on hand, Knudson was able to peruse the works of other Taos artists to get an idea of what “The Last Trail” might be worth. When he saw a $60,000 price tag on one of the paintings, and that the painting was sold, “he kind of lit up”. “As soon as we got back to Raton he took it off the wall and put it in a safe,” says Newton.
Keep It or Sell It?
The ownership of the valued art by the school system was announced to the public, via The Raton Range, in November, 1981. In a March, 1982 Range article Superintendent Knudson stated that the painting had been appraised by Forrest Fenn, a Santa Fe art expert, who judged its worth to be $95,000. It was the appraiser’s opinion that the painting would increase in value by $10,000 if it was cleaned.
The publicity in the newspaper exposing the painting’s value – aesthetic and financial – sparked a barrage of opinions from the public about what should be done with it. Should it be sold, with the proceeds to go toward financial support of artistic endeavors in the school system? Or should it be kept for present and future generations of students to view and appreciate?
The Range abounded with letters to the editor as well as editorials by several members of the paper’s staff. The Raton School Board and Superintendent Knudson fielded phone calls and listened to citizens expressing their views at monthly board meetings. Undoubtedly, the painting was the talk of the town over a period of several months from 1981 through 1983.
One noteworthy example of a letter to the editor came from Raton artist, Steve Bertola, who had made a study of The Taos Society of Artists. He wrote in part, “The aesthetic value of such a work outweighs its monetary value immensely. The impression this painting can have on young artists as well as developed artists is invaluable.” He went on to say, “…His (Phillips’) paintings are scattered throughout the world, why not savor one piece of his work in Raton?” Bertola suggested in his letter that “the painting could be processed into limited edition prints”, thereby deriving a good source of income for the school system.
Another letter to the editor, from former Raton city manager Robert Gurule, was short and to the point. He wrote, “To those who advocate selling Bert G. Phillips’ ‘The Last Trail’: Sure am glad you don’t have possession of Leonardo DaVinci’s ‘The Last Supper’”.
In early 1982 the story of the painting reached the pages of American West Magazine. There was also an article in The Albuquerque Journal (1981), “Schools Painting Possible Worth $100,000” and another, “The Painting That Divided a City”, in the Albuquerque Journal Magazine (1982). Even former New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson, offered a suggestion. A Congressional candidate at the time, Richardson proposed that Raton “begin to think in terms of establishing an art center – one where the town’s artistic treasures can, in the years to come, be safely preserved and publicly displayed.”
In August, 1982, The Range conducted an informal telephone survey of 200 Raton residents on the question of whether or not to sell “The Last Trail”. The survey clearly indicated that most Ratonians wanted the school system to keep the painting. Forty-one percent of those surveyed were in favor of keeping the painting while eighteen per cent favored selling. Thirty-four per cent were not familiar with the issue and seven per cent had no opinion.
The following responses to the painting issue were culled from letters to the editor, newspaper editorials, and the telephone survey:
It adds richness and distinction to Raton and its people.
It continues to be a gift and to sell it would be a violation of the benefactor’s wish.
It belongs to present and future generations.
It is a significant painting.
Works of art and things of beauty are of cultural importance.
It is an opportunity to teach the children in Raton that there are more important things than money.
Security arrangements and insurance premiums for any viewing set-up would be costly.
Proceeds from the sale might possibly be used to set up a trust fund that could be a perpetual source of income for art scholarships and other art-related activities.
Keeping the painting in a vault removes its aesthetic value.
The Major Players
Once the painting was removed from the Columbian building and placed in a bank vault its fate lay in the hands of the Raton School Board. The board members, major players in the debate over what to do with the painting, had a tough decision to make. Dwayne Bacon, Diana Best, Ed Fidel, Paul Kastler, and Jim Segotta, vacillated in their attempts to decide how to vote, contemplating their own personal feelings as well as those of their constituents.
The Board’s Decision
On October 6, 1982 The Range reported that after months of controversy and debate over the possible sale of the painting, the board, on a motion by Paul Kastler, voted by a 3-2 margin to keep, insure, and display the painting. In the final tally, Kastler, Bacon and Best voted to keep it, while Fidel and Segotta opted for selling it.
Several months later board president Jim Segotta told The Range that two local businesses, Craftsman Glass and ARF Products, Inc., were assisting the school system in getting the painting ready for view by the public. Craftsman Glass manufactured a theft-proof, bullet-proof encasing for the painting, while Jim Veltri, an employee of ARF Products, outfitted the case with an electronic alarm device. The total cost of the precautionary measures was estimated at $1400.00. An annual rate of $500.00 was projected for insurance protection.
The site chosen by the board for public display of the painting was the lobby of the Raton High School gymnasium.
Original Purchase of the Painting
Florence Oliver, principal of Columbian Elementary School in the early part of the twentieth century, was the mastermind behind the acquisition of the Bert Phillips painting. A brief article in The Raton Reporter, February 6, 1920, reported that she “conceived the idea of using some of the money from the Fete Day exercises to purchase pictures for the school building.” Fete Day was an event similar to a bazaar or festival, organized for raising money. One of the features of Columbian’s Fete Day was a series of entertaining acts and performances by the students.
According to some local folks, students attending Columbian in 1919 and 1920 donated their own pennies, nickels, and dimes to buy the painting, but these reports have not been verified. As stated in The Reporter article, the profits from Fete Day, as well as the financial generosity of the Columbian teachers and other patrons, contributed to the $200.00 purchase price.
In a June, 1920 thank you not to Mrs. F. H. Oliver, Bert Phillips wrote, “…I am delighted to learn of the pleasure and pride taken in the picture, especially on the part of the children.”
About the Painting
American artist Bert Geer Phillips (1868-1956) is known for his paintings of Native Americans. “The Last Trail’, circa 1920, was painted in oil on canvas. It is mounted in its original frame, size 25×30 inches.
The artist included the following description of his painting in a thank you letter to Florence Oliver, principal of Columbian School: “The picture shows an Indian Chief who has been riding his pony along one of their hunting trails until he came to the skull of a cow left by a party of immigrants who have gone into the country ahead to locate homesteads where the chief’s tribe have hunted for many generations and which for hundreds of years they have considered their rightful possession; imagine the many battles they have fought to retain it from their enemies; the many happy associations; and the fact that their very existence depends on the game which it contains. Then you do not wonder that the Indian Chief ponders on what duty lies before him – no other country remains for his people; one by one the trails, the hunting grounds have been given up to the ‘Pale Face’ settlers and here on the last trail still owned by his people is the evidence that the last surrender or the last fight must take place soon. For him and some of his braves possibly awaits the last trail of all.”
Why all the fuss?
According to an appraisal report completed in 2006 for Bill Walz, former superintendent of Raton Public Schools, the worth of the painting has more than doubled since the original appraisal. Why is “The Last Trail” so valuable? Why is it so important?
It is of considerable significance that the artist was Bert Phillips, one of the founders of the widely acclaimed Taos Art Colony. This professional artists’ association was formed in 1915 by a group of academically-trained painters who had come to Taos from various points in the eastern and midwestern states. Known as the “Taos Six” the founding members included Joseph Sharp, E. Irving Couse, Oscar Berninghaus, W. Herbert Dunton, Ernest Blumenshchein, and Bert Phillips.
The Taos Colony was the first professional group of painters devoted to recording and interpreting the people of New Mexico and throughout the Southwest, and bringing this imagery to the attention of a national art audience.
According to Newton, once the notoriety of the Taos artists was established, their body of works became more valuable. He explains, “Art of course is a good investment. Generally speaking art has a tendency to go up in price and the further that you get away from the period of time that the artist lived and the longer since the artist has passed away, then the price in general tends to go up.”
Keep It or Sell It? Part Two
The debate over whether to keep or sell the painting resumed briefly in 2006, on a much smaller scale than the 1980s controversy.
In the early 2000s, during Linda Hale’s tenure as superintendent, Raton High School was undergoing extensive remodeling. For safekeeping Hale had the painting removed from the lobby of the gymnasium and placed in the vault at the Raton Public Schools’ administration building.
Bill Walz followed Hale as the chief administrator of the school system. In 2006 Walz contacted Carolyn Seigel, owner of 20th Century West Art Appraisal in Santa Fe, to evaluate the worth of the painting for the school district. Her opinion of fair market value of the painting was a quarter of a million dollars.
A September 15th article in The Range quoted Walz as saying he would “personally like to see the painting sold” with the proviso that the money generated from its sale to be used to benefit the school system’s fine arts program. Part of his concern with keeping the painting was whether or not the school district could afford the cost of insuring it, especially if it was to be displayed to the public.
At their September meeting the Raton School Board gave Walz the go ahead to start the process to get state approval to advertise the painting for bids. Although Walz and the board, which included members Art Armijo, Stephanie Jansen, P.J. Mileta, Ray Tafoya, and Dan Ward seemed to be leaning towards selling the painting, board president Mileta noted that public input would be important in the board’s final decision.
In December the board voted 4-1, with Jensen the lone “nay” vote, to remove “The Last Trail” from the district’s property disposal list, reversing its initial intentions to sell the painting. The Range reported on December 15, 2006 that “based on community feedback opposing the sale of the painting, the board opted to remove it from the property disposal list.”
Status of the Painting in 2016
The painting, “The Last Trail” by Bert Phillips, currently resides in a vault in the administration building of the Raton Public Schools.
Is it possible that some future school board might once again debate whether or not to sell the painting? Several of the former board members who were mired in the controversy of the 1980s strongly advise the Raton Public Schools to keep the significant artwork, and if possible to display it. They, along with Marv Newton, finder of the treasure, offer the following comments:
Diana Best – I don’t think being in the vault is the answer. I think it should be re-hung somewhere, maybe at the elementary school because it was elementary kids who bought it. If kids are inquisitive enough and ask about it, they could learn about art, about the artist. We have something to be proud of there. Kids going to school now should be aware of where it came from and how they got it.
Paul Kastler – It should be put in some place where it could be viewed by the students and possibly by the public; that’s why that certain area (gymnasium lobby) was chosen, rather than a sale. The sale would be a one time sale for a school board that may be desperate for money. But that would be a mistake in my view, and it would be a breach of, I think, the trust that although not written, was created when the painting was first given to the school. It was to be available. It’s a beautiful painting and maybe some children with some artistic temperament would gain something by it if they were to learn of its history and why it came to Raton. It should not be hidden in a vault; it should not be sold. That’s my view.
Jim Segotta – To me put the painting someplace where everyone can enjoy it. If they could come up with some place safe to put it and keep it, probably in a bank or a museum, and that way the whole community could see it. It’s a beautiful painting.
Marv Newton – Like any painting it needs to be seen. My thought would be that maybe it could be shared with the Raton Museum or something like that on a lending basis. I think the Raton Museum probably has some security features that would cover it. If not, if the school system couldn’t raise the money, the museum could probably look to the private sector to insure the painting, making sure it was secure in there.
Bert Phillips’ painting “The Last Trail”, purchased in 1920, initially hung in the first Columbian School building. The “old” building, erected in 1900, was razed in 1939 to make way for a “new” Columbian School that was constructed by the Works Process Administration. The painting, stored in the basement of the new building for several years, was brought out of storage in 1944 by Marge Leason, another principal at Columbian. Thereafter, the painting was continuously displayed in Columbian’s entryway until it was sighted by Marv Newton in the early 1970s. Although Newton felt it was necessary to alert Superintendent Russell Knudson about it, he was surprised at the attention spawned by his discovery of the valuable painting. Reflecting back he says, “People heard about it in all kinds of places. I think it was good that we brought it to the attention of everyone before something happened to it. It could have been stolen very easily from the elementary school and nobody would know anything about it. Who knows what could have happened to it?
NOTE: The photo of the original Columbian School is courtesy of Nancy Robertson.
All other photos are by Jim Veltri.