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Don Nelson looked up from his maple-glazed donut and 5-cent cup of coffee recently in a Wall Drug dining room at Harvey Dunn's "Prairie Homestead."

"An original?" asked Nelson of Sioux Falls, when he learned he was looking at a painting by South Dakota's best-known artist. "I would have thought it was a print. So he's got a little money tied up in it then, I guess?"

A lot of money, actually.

Ted Hustead estimates Wall Drug has somewhere between $3 million and $4 million worth of artwork hanging on the walls of its sprawling restaurant complex. That can make an insurance company nervous and cause museum curators to lecture him on the threat of theft, vandalism and the dangers of displaying fine art in close proximity to deep-fat doughnut fryers.

"Yeah, my insurance company tells me there are things that we should do that we just haven't done yet," Hustead admitted as he toured his collection on a recent weekday. "We should have a separate insurance policy on it because the collection is getting so valuable."

Most of the two million visitors who pass through Wall Drug each year don't realize the quality of the art they're looking at, Hustead said. Like the Nelson family, who were on their way to the Black Hills on vacation, many Wall Drug tourists are clueless that the works of Dunn, N.C. Wyeth and others are originals, not prints.

"I just bought a new Harvey Dunn that I paid $127,000 for," Hustead said. "A lot of people are quite shocked when they see the collection."

Hustead's newest Dunn is "Apprehending the Horse Thieves," a 1938 painting that tells the story of two horse thieves about to be roped and dragged to death for their crime. It's a more gruesome theme than the later prairie masterpieces for which Dunn is famous, but the painting is almost as good, Hustead believes.

"I think we're getting close to 'The Prairie Is My Garden' here," Hustead said as he talked about the artistry of "Apprehending the Horse Thieves" with Lynda Clark, an art gallery owner and Harvey Dunn expert from Rapid City.

"Just look at the genius of this painting," he said, pointing to the straight lines on the figures and structures that are counterbalanced by the impressionistic brushstrokes and characteristic colors of Dunn's later paintings.

Clark agreed that the two paintings are of similar artistic quality.

As the former director of the South Dakota Art Museum at South Dakota State University in Brookings - which has the largest collection of Harvey Dunn artwork in the world - Clark is well-versed in the value of a Dunn painting, both artistically and financially.

Born near De Smet in 1884, Dunn is considered the finest artist South Dakota ever produced, Clark said. He is among a group of American painters - Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle and Winslow Homer - who worked as illustrators for magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers. Although the art world once turned its nose up at illustrators who produced prolifically on commission, some of those illustrators have since come to be included in the pantheon of great American artists.

Clark is delighted that Hustead shares her passion for her favorite illustrator, but she would prefer that he hang his Dunns and all his valuable paintings on security hangers, away from the smoke and grease fumes of the restaurant. Galleries routinely hang artwork by wires that require a special screwdriver to remove them from the wall or from hooks that emit an electronic alarm when moved.

Hustead has considered those precautions but worries they may cause more problems than they solve, given the unusual setting of a tourist attraction turned art gallery. When the Wall Drug restaurant filled with smoke in a 2001 fire, employees were able to save the most valuable paintings from smoke and water damage by quickly removing them from the dining room.

"We had a fire one time, and if we'd had them screwed to the walls, we would have lost them all," Hustead said, referring to the 2001 fire.

And although some art curators, accustomed to vast expanses of white walls, might be appalled by the way Wall Drug displays its artwork, Clark sees the presentation as a quintessential Wall Drug approach.

"I think this is absolutely perfect," she said of the collection. Western masterpieces and amateur art are all crammed onto pine-paneled walls, competing for diners' attention with the burgers and fries on their plates. "It's the very spirit of Wall Drug."

Wall Drug has always packed a lot of entertainment bang for the tourist buck, Hustead said, and its ever-expanding, increasingly valuable art collection is no exception to that business rule. It may be the finest private collection of Western art on free public view anywhere in the world, he said.

One small stretch of wall, facing the doughnut counter, contains more than half a million dollars' worth of fine art - including an original N.C. Wyeth painting, "The Devil's Whisper," and two of the store's dozen Harvey Dunns, "Punching it Out" and "Gray Dawn."

"There's no other place where we could put them and expose this many people to them for free," Hustead said.

Wall Drug's art collection began more than 50 years ago with his grandfather, Ted Hustead. His father, Bill Hustead, built the art collection through purchases that proved to be good investments, many of them increasing 10- or 15-fold in value. A Harvey Dunn that Bill Hustead bought for $20,000 would appraise for no less than $70,000 today, said Mike Huether, general manager of Wall Drug. Original magazine illustrations bought for $500 are worth $5,000 or more today.

Many of those paintings were created as "pulp" illustrations for Western paperback novels, magazines or movies. Their value lies not so much in their art but in the cultural history of America that they capture, Hustead said - and in the fact that very little illustration art is still being produced in America.

"That's why illustration art is taking off in value. With the advent of digital art, there isn't much of it being drawn in America," Hustead said.

The 30 or so paintings by Hildred Goodwine are a case in point.

Goodwine was a popular illustrator for the Leanin' Tree greeting card company. Her painting of two horses looking in a window at a candlelit Christmas tree scene may never be fine art, but it was the most popular Western greeting card sold in America the year she drew it, Huether said.

Wall Drug also has plenty of Native American artwork, including paintings by Andrew Standing Soldier and at least one original Oscar Howe that hangs humbly in a corner despite its considerable value.

Not a big fan of Howe's style, Hustead prefers pieces by James Avati, often referred to as "The Rembrandt of paperback book covers," or the Native American-themed work of Carl Link, whose portrait of a young Native girl is a favorite of his. Link is best known as the illustrator of the historic Coca-Cola Santa advertisements.

Still, Hustead estimates the Howe is worth $40,000.

"Try $60,000," Clark corrected him.

Ted Hustead just smiles, one very happy art collector.

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