Fate hitched Edward S. Curtis to George Bird Grinnell at one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, Mount Rainier. The photographer met the American Indian anthropologist in 1898, the same year Curtis had received a gold medal in photography.
An impressed Grinnell lassoed Curtis as the photographer for a 1900 expedition to document Montana’s Blackfoot Indians. Afterwards, Curtis’s Blackfoot photos attracted the attention of financier J.P. Morgan, who, in 1906, gave Curtis $75,000 to produce a series on the North American Indian. Roughly 20 years later, Curtis had captured at least 80 tribes in more than 40,000 photographs to select for his monumental 20-volume series,
The North American Indian. Curtis did “what no other man ever has done; what…no other man could do,” President Theodore Roosevelt praised. Although Curtis’s work has been criticized for portraying a “vanishing race” of tribes who still live among us, the heritage auction arena has put his photographs on top. As collectors know all too well, the “vanishing race” most evident in historical American Indian photography is the missed opportunity to bid on these rare gems before the hammer falls. —Meghan Saar
***BEST OF THE WEST 2015 ***
BEST WESTERN ART COLLECTION
Editor’s Choice: Stark Museum of Art, Orange, TX
Reader’s Choice: The Autry in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, CA
BEST AMERICAN INDIAN COLLECTION
Editor’s Choice: Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY
Reader’s Choice: Smoki Museum, Prescott AZ
BEST PIONEER HISTORY COLLECTION
Editor’s Choice: Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, TX
Reader’s Choice: Pioneer Village, Minden, NE
BEST OLD WEST COLLECTIBLES AUCTION
Editor’s Choice: Brian Lebel’s Old West Auction, Denver, CO
Reader’s Choice: Heritage Auctions, Dallas, TX
BEST WESTERN PAINTER
Editor’s Choice: Howard Terpning
Reader’s Choice: C.M. Russell
BEST WESTERN ART GALLERY
Editor’s Choice: National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, OK
Reader’s Choice: Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, TX
Two Moons & Wolf Voice Wolf Voice, Gros Ventre (right), and Two Moons, Cheyenne chief (left), by L.A. Huffman; Brian Lebel’s Old West Auction, $1,000.
Antelope Water The top-selling Curtis photo was “Tapa, Antelope Water, Taos,” taken in 1905. It hammered down for $17,000 at Christie’s New York on April 3, 2014.
Apache Headgear These Apache scouts wear an assortment of headgear—sombrero, kepi, forage cap—as well as military jackets and eagle belt buckles. T.E. Stanton’s circa 1870s-80s photo hammered down for $500 at Heritage Auctions on June 14, 2014.
Black Hills Delegation Frank F. Currier’s May 1875 photo of a Black Hills Delegation in Omaha, Nebraska, shows Red Cloud in the back row next to interpreter Julius Meyer, in front of (from left) Sitting Bull (the Arapaho chief, not the Lakota medicine man), Swift Bear and Spotted Tail; Heritage Auctions, June 14, 2014, $400.
Cheyenne Scouts Christian Barthelmess opened his photography studio at Montana’s Fort Keogh in 1888. Nine of his photos, including this one of Lt. Edward W. Casey’s Cheyenne scouts with their families, hammered down for $1,700 at Brian Lebel’s Old West Auction on June 28, 2014.
Chief Hollow Horn Bear At the world’s fair held in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1898, Frank Rinehart, assisted by Adolph Muhr, photographed the largest gathering of Indians from different parts of the country. Rinehart’s hand colored photo of Chief Hollow Horn Bear bid in for $3,000 at March in Montana on March 21-22, 2014.
Curly Crow scout of George Custer’s, Curly stands next to Big Medicine, chief of Indian Police at Montana’s Crow Agency, in this 1900 photo taken by L.E. Christensen; Heritage Auctions, June 14, 2014, $1,000.
Cross in Dakota Territory William R. Cross’s Dakota Territory photos went up for bid on June 14, 2014, at Heritage Auctions: nine early 1880s stereoviews of Fort Randall and Fort Buford (see one above), including three with Sitting Bull, for $1,600, plus a Cross cabinet card of Red Cloud (right) that belonged to the famous poet scout “Capt. Jack” Crawford; $400.
Little Wound Oglala Lakota Chief Little Wound is the portrait subject in this hand colored 1899 Herman Heyn photo that sold for an $1,100 bid at Heritage Auctions on May 16, 2014.
Maid of Dreams By the end of September 2014, Edward Sheriff Curtis led the year’s auctions in top-selling frontier Indian photography. The most intriguing of the top three lots is “Maid of Dreams”, encased in its original Curtis Studio frame (inset), which bid for $12,000 at Heritage Auctions on April 5, 2014.
Rain in the Face George E. Spencer marketed his photo of Rain In The Face at the 1893 world’s fair in Chicago; Heritage Auctions, June 14, 2014, $2,200.
Young Whirlwind’s Family E.B. Snell’s cabinet card of a Cheyenne family—Young Whirlwind, wife and daughter—was given to Henry Heth, a surveyor for the Office of Indian Affairs (today’s Bureau of Indian Affairs), in 1888; Heritage Auctions, June 7, 2014, $600.