The North American Indian, by Edward S Curtis, is as important a cultural icon in the American psyche as John James Audubon’s Birds of America – both at the peak of publishing in the history of the United States.
The exquisite set is not just one of the great landmarks for bibliophiles, it is also a masterpiece of photography, ground-breaking social record of a vanishing race of people. Now Swann Auction Galleries has announced it will offer one of the earliest complete sets, in its original binding, at auction on October 18. The estimate is $1m to $1.5m.
Compiled by Curtis from 1907-30, the 20 volumes of text, accompanied by 20 folios of large-format photogravures, document the lives and customs of the Native American tribes. Curtis explained his motives in the introduction to the first volume in 1907: “The information that is to be gathered… respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.”
The financier and banker J.P. Morgan funded the early stages of the project, providing Curtis with $75,000 in 1906. In total, only 222 sets were published, during Curtis’ lifetime; the Morgan family provided $2.5 million in funds. This is set 11 of the 25 sets reserved for J.P. Morgan, who personally gifted it to the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1908. Volume 1 is signed by Curtis himself.
Daile Kaplan, Director of Swann Galleries’ Photographs & Photobooks department, who will oversee the sale, sets the work in context:
“It is very uncommon to offer a complete Curtis set, especially one in the original binding in very good condition, and on Van Gelder paper, which absorbs the ink in a very rich and velvety lustrous way. This is spectacular.” As well as its historic importance, Kaplan expects it to attract a great deal of attention from a wide range of collectors. “One of the advantages of offering material by Curtis, especially a set like this, is that it appeals to so many different collectors and disciplines. J.P. Morgan was a sponsor and patron, as well as a very august bibliophile. The photos and orotones will also undoubtedly appeal to Americana and photography enthusiasts.”
Curtis was a significant figure in the development of photography as an art form and social record, working with photography pioneers Alfred Stieglitz and Lewis Hine. He began his career as a portrait photographer in Seattle in the early 1890s, hoping to document Native American life. After his skills came to the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, whose children Curtis photographed, Roosevelt lent his support to the project and introduced him J.P. Morgan. Morgan bankrolled the first phases of the project. “What Curtis brought to this project is not only of documentary and photojournalistic importance, but also of great significance artistically, with the images as beautiful and grand as can be,” says Kaplan.
The project made a hero of Curtis at the time.
“He had a keen awareness that the culture was being decimated by government agents and missionaries and was vanishing before his eyes, and he was determined to ensure that the spirituality, rituals and culture of the people was treated with respect,” says Kaplan. Swann Galleries achieved a house record when they took $1.44m in 2012 for another, rebound complete set of The North American Indian, a sale that Kaplan also handled. “All the superlatives are there: heroic, epic, grand, majestic. This magnum opus has been compared to Audubon in terms of the vision and grandeur of the completed project,” she explained. “The notion of the Big Idea and unravelling the great mystery of the native culture for the general population to understand has become embedded in the national psyche. “As such, this work would sit at the very top of any collector’s wish list. The original morocco binding, with its rich leather and gilt, the detailing on the spine, and the production values associated with the photogravures all add to its appeal. I feel honoured and privileged to handle this masterpiece.”
Auction title: Artists & Amateurs: Photographs & Photobooks
Auction date: Thursday, October 18, at 1:00 pm (EST)
Preview dates: October 13, 12-5; October 15-17, 12-5; October 18, 10-12