Photograph Collector’s Guide
Skip down to section:
Availability and Price
Highest Price Paid at Auction
Education and/or Experience
Important Recent Exhibitions
Signature Variation and Other Identification
EDWARD SHERRIFF CURTIS: b. Near Whitewater, Wisconsin, February 19, 1868 d. Whittier, California, October 19, 1952
It’s such a big dream I can’t see it all.— Edward Curtis
I like a man who attempts the impossible.— J. Pierpont Morgan
Edward Curtis attempted the impossible and in the process nearly achieved it. He sacrificed his livelihood, his financial security, his marriage, and, ultimately, his physical and emotional well-being. Between 1900 and 1930 he created The North American Indian project, the most extensive (and expensive) photographic project ever undertaken, which was hailed as “the finest set of books since the King James Bible”. The cost, in 2010 dollars, was over $35,000,000. Curtis travelled and socialized with presidents, kings, and chiefs. He produced over 40,000 negatives for his Native American project, 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of language and music, over 4,000 pages of highly regarded anthropological text, and a feature length film. He also crisscrossed the country by train over 125 times, giving lectures and exhibitions (selling out Carnegie Hall twice). His magnum opus, The North American Indian, is still widely hailed as the most beautiful and lavishly produced photographically illustrated set of rare books ever created. Thus, Curtis was a stunningly prolific and award-winning photographer, renowned ethnographer, entrepreneur, filmmaker, writer, lecturer, mountaineer and adventurer.
Curtis was born into abject poverty in rural Wisconsin in 1868. From age five on, he was raised in rural Minnesota, attending a one-room schoolhouse until he was twelve. At that age he scraped together $1.25, built his own camera and began learning the medium that would change his life forever. He is believed to have apprenticed in a St. Paul photo studio in 1885-1886, and in 1888 Curtis moved with his family to the Puget Sound region of Washington State. In the early-1890s he took out a small loan, bought an interest in a Seattle photo studio and soon became the Northwest’s pre-eminent portrait photographer. In approximately 1895 he began photographing native peoples in the Puget Sound area.
Through dint of hard work, luck and serendipity, Curtis has begun his Indian project in earnest by 1900. In 1906, with financial support from J.P. Morgan, he began the next phase of his great publication project which culminated in the completion of The North American Indian a quarter of a century later.
In 1930, when he completed The North American Indian project, he had a complete breakdown and his whereabouts over the next two years remain a mystery. Penniless and essentially unknown, Curtis was cared for by one of his daughters, Beth Magnuson, until his death in 1952. While a brief the New York Times obituary described Curtis as an “…internationally known authority on the history of the North American Indian,” it barely mentioned his photographic career, stating only that “…Mr. Curtis was also widely known as a photographer.”
Middle Period, 1900 –1915: Almost exclusively devoted to his project on Native American life and culture, with ever-decreasing amounts of time spent doing studio portraiture. Created his epic Picture Opera Musicale with original, Native-inspired musical score and large orchestra (1911). Began filming Native Americans in 1901. Created his first feature-length narrative documentary film in 1914, entitled In the Land of the War Canoes. Illustrated various popular books and magazines of the time, including the British Journal of Photography, the American Museum Journal, and Flute of the Gods.
Later Period, 1916 –1930: Completion of The North American Indian project and a variety of Hollywood motion picture still work (e.g. The Ten Commandments), series of blue-toned silver prints (Aphrodite series and Hollywood stills), and some portraiture. He was also active as a cameraman during this period. After 1928 he did not photograph seriously again before his death in 1952.
Curtis created a wide variety of silver prints. The most frequently encountered are called goldtones (or “orotones” or “Curt-Tones”) which, like platinum prints, also comprise approximately one-fourth to one half of one percent of Curtis’ extant work. Curtis’ goldtones range from 4” x 5” salesman’s samples to 18” x 22” (extremely rare.) Based on current data, goldtones used a gelatin silver emulsion, which was suspended on glass (vs. paper) and after development were backed with gold-hued bronzing powders. Goldtones are virtually always framed in one of several original frames_most typically in a “bat-wing” style gesso and compo over wood. Curtis also created gelatin silver paper-based prints for sale and/or exhibition and these are virtually always sepia toned and are more rare than platinum prints or orotones. There is also a small body of warm-toned gelatin silver prints, which incorporate a barely discernable screen pattern, which are often confused with platinum prints. Curtis also created untoned, gelatin silver “reference prints” which generally have a semi-gloss or glossy surface and are typically approximately 6 x 8 image size on slightly larger paper, printed on single weight paper.
Gold-toned printing-out paper prints: These collodian-silver prints, on single weight paper, are a printing-out process and gold-toned. They are extremely rare and were produced principally in 1899 and 1900. They are marked by their fine grain structure, sharp resolution and russety sepia tone. Of the few examples that exist, the majority are approximately 12 x 16 (or reverse).
Curtis also created a large body of cyanotypes (blue-hued, printing-out process prints). These were made in the field contemporaneously with the creation of negatives and, presumably, virtually all of his 40,000-plus negatives were initially printed as cyanotypes; however, few of these survive. Additionally, Curtis created an extremely small body of hand-colored gelatin silver and platinum photographs using watercolor and oils, as well as experimental prints that appear to employ a gum process and/or ink. A small body of Curtis’ lantern slides still exist, some hand-colored. Lastly, Curtis created blue-toned gelatin silver prints (Aphrodite series, Hollywood stills, etc.); these should not be confused with his cyanotypes.
COLLECTOR ALERT: There are many reprints, reproductions and a moderate number of fakes of Curtis’ work. It is critical that a collector be well-informed before purchasing Curtis’ work purported to be vintage and/or created during Curtis’ lifetime. Many of Curtis’ photogravure plates have been restruck (reprinted) numerous times since the 1960s. Various individuals and businesses have controlled the original copper photogravure printing plates, which still exist. Vintage photogravures are easily distinguishable by the paper support material they are printed upon. Each of the three original etching stocks has a distinct weight, texture, surface, fiber structure, etc. To a trained eye, all restrikes are easily distinguishable as such. The one exception is a very small body of major images that were (apparently) surreptitiously restruck on a tissue-like paper in the 1980s. It takes a highly trained eye and a magnifying device to clearly identify these fakes. Curtis goldtones have been both legitimately recreated and faked posthumously. The Curtis Centennial Project, Inc. has been creating contemporary goldtones from its archive of vintage Curtis negatives since in 1998. These are clearly delineated in a variety of ways both externally and in the glass plate itself. Jean-Anthony DuLac created a small body of goldtones in the 1970s, which are not clearly or easily delineated from the vintage ones. The small body of intentional fakes that were created principally in the 1980s likewise require a trained eye to distinguish from the real thing.
While the author knows of no known examples of paper-based, non-gravure intentional fakes, creation of these will probably not be far off, as prices for Curtis platinum prints, in particular, have soared. Also, being largely in the public domain, innumerable Curtis images have been reproduced in everything from inexpensive knock-offs (ink jet prints, etc.) to fairly expensive platinum prints.
Lastly, Curtis Centennial Project, Inc. has been creating contemporary, limited edition prints in a variety of media (cyanotype, silver, platinum, photolithograph etc.) since 1998. These posthumous, original prints (they are made from Curtis’ vintage negatives, not reproduced from prints) are clearly denoted by the contemporary copyright information embedded in each print (as well as other indicia). While these have been widely exhibited internationally, few have come on the market for sale.
Thus, to make an informed purchase within the Curtis oeuvre, one must distinguish between vintage prints, later prints created during Curtis’ lifetime, posthumous original prints (printed from Curtis vintage negatives), reproductions in a wide variety of media, and intentional fakes.
Print and mount sizes: Curtis’ vintage prints range in size from 4 x 5 to 24 x 32, or larger. The vast majority of his prints are approximately 5 x 7 or 12 x 16 (the photogravures), 6 x 8 or 12 x 16 (platinum and silver prints) or 8 x 10 and 11 x 14 (goldtones). All media include horizontal and vertical images. The smaller photogravures are printed on 9 x 12 hand-made paper and the larger photogravures are printed on 18 x 22 sheets of hand-made etching stock or, in the case of the premium “tissue” prints, the “tissue” paper is slightly larger than the image and then under and over-matted with the 18 x 22 sheets (slightly smaller for the under mat).
Most of the smaller photogravures were originally bound in books and the larger ones were loose in portfolios. The folio size “tissue” photogravures were mounted on a “Vellum” type paper and over-matted with Van Gelder paper. Goldtones, being printed on glass, are never mounted but virtually always framed. The majority of the silver and platinum prints are unmounted but some platinum prints are adhered to single, double or triple layers of handmade, deckled edged, single weight paper. Some silver and platinum prints are occasionally mounted on heavy, stiff board.
Negative sizes: Originally Curtis worked with large glass plate negatives up to 14 x 17 and possibly larger, later negatives (post 1900) were typically 6” x 8”. Curtis is believed to have created 40,000_50,000 negatives of North American Indians and at least 10-20,000 studio portraits, landscapes, Gold Rush and Harriman Expedition photographs.
EDITIONS:Curtis did not edition his individual prints as such. However, his sets of rare books, The North American Indian, were editioned. And, by extension, his photogravures contained therein are of a limited edition. The early volumes and portfolios were apparently printed in editions of somewhat over 300 (of a proposed edition of 500). In general, the edition size appears to have decreased later in project to fewer than 300. Today at least 220 of the original sets of The North American Indian are still intact as complete sets (and approximately ninety percent of those are in institutional collections). The following is a rough guide to the number of Curtis prints, by media, believed to exist:
Goldtones: (“Curt-tones” or “orotones”). It is estimated that Curtis printed approximately sixty to seventy of his negatives as goldtones. Curtis’ individual goldtone images range from unique to probably over 500 impressions for The Vanishing Race. A small number of images have more than twenty impressions in goldtone extant. With the majority of the remaining images, there are a smaller number of prints extant. Curtis’ most popular size for his goldtones was 11 x 14, followed by 8 x 10, 14 x 17 (rare) and 18 x 22 (extremely rare.)
Platinum Prints: It is estimated that approximately 400-800 negatives were printed as platinum prints, but possibly as few as 200 negatives were printed as finished exhibition or sale prints, typically in either the 6 x 8 or 12 x 16 size. Generally there are fewer than four or five prints per negative. Several of the most popular images are estimated to have forty to eighty examples in existence in platinum in various sizes. There are probably 200_300 platinum prints of The Vanishing Race, ranging in size from 6” x 8” to 17” x 22”.
Silver Prints: Untoned silver “reference” prints survive of over 1,000 negatives, although most of these are among the archive originally filed with the Copyright Office. Generally there are only one or two reference prints that survive of any given negative outside of the two copies originally submitted to the Copyright Office. For toned silver prints, it is estimated that prints from several hundred negatives exist, but generally only one to five prints exist from any individual negative, although a few of the most popular images are probably higher. A small number (probably under 100) of toned silver prints were created as “border prints” (see illustration); these are quite scarce, with generally only one or two prints per negative.
Cyanotypes: Of the 40,000-50,000 cyanotype prints presumed to have been created, (at least one for virtually every negative), only a few hundred appear to have survived. Cyanotypes that have survived are generally unique.
Experimental Prints: Hand-colored and other experimental prints are extremely rare and generally unique.
Posthumous Original Prints and Reproductions: These have been, and continue to be, produced in a wide variety of open- and closed-end editions, in at least nine different print media.
PORTFOLIOS:Curtis did not create individual, thematic portfolios in the manner of many contemporary photographers. He did, however, create twenty portfolios as part of his magnum opus The North American Indian. Each set of these rare books (done in an edition of approximately 272, of a projected edition of 500) comprises 722 large-format original photogravures contained in the twenty portfolios. These portfolios were released during the period 1907–1930 on a complete set, subscription basis.
Curtis also contributed over 100 photographs to the two-volume Harriman Alaskan Expedition souvenir albums. These albums of over 240 gelatin silver prints were done in an edition of approximately twenty-five.
Curtis undoubtedly created other albums of original photographs and at least one example of his work with the mountaineering group the Mazamas Club is known to exist.
AVAILABILITY AND PRICE:Availability of the existing prints varies greatly with medium, image and size. Many non-gravures are unique and come on the market only once in ten to twenty years, if then. Other non-gravure prints have more impressions extant and are, therefore, somewhat easier to source. Most photogravures, of which approximately eighty to ninety impressions of each image have become available individually over the past century, can generally be located and purchased within weeks or a few months; however, the more valuable photogravures have become increasingly difficult (and expensive) to source.
Vintage print values range dramatically depending upon image, medium, size, print quality and print condition. Photogravure prints ranges from very low for the least desirable to very high for most desirable. Smaller, volume-size photogravures generally range from very low to moderate, with the smaller print of Chief Joseph commanding moderately high prices (approximately $15-20,000). Larger photogravures are typically in the low to moderate range but a number range from high to very high ($80-90,000). Complete, original volumes from The North American Indian are in the high range and are sometimes up to very high for an unusually rare and desirable version of Volume I. Complete portfolios can command extremely high prices for exceptional examples.
Non-goldtone silver prints range from low to high or very high. Cyanotypes typically range from low to moderate. Smaller platinum prints range from very low or low to high. Larger platinum prints range from moderate to high, with exceptions up to extremely high.
Goldtones range from moderate to very high for extremely rare and desirable examples.
HIGHEST PRICE PAID AT AUCTION AT PUBLICATION DATE:Individual print: Sothebys, April 7th, 2008, lot number 9: Chief Joseph 1904, Platinum, 16 x 12, very rare, signed in ink on recto, mounted on board, condition good, price realized $169,000.
Complete set of The North American Indian: Christie’s, October, 2005, twenty volumes and twenty portfolios, Van Gelder paper, condition poor to fair, price realized $1,415,000.
EDUCATION AND/OR EXPERIENCE:Curtis was schooled in a one-room, rural schoolhouse through the sixth grade; thereafter he was self-taught.
INFLUENCES/COLLABORATIONS:Curtis was highly influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, Pictorialism, nineteenth-century western landscape photography, and the then-developing field of anthropology. He met Alfred Stieglitz and other leading fine art photographers of the period, often discussing photographic aesthetics and theory. Curtis also carried on lively debates and discussions with a variety of other photographers of the time through his writings in journals of the day.
Curtis is reputedly the most widely collected fine art photographer (public and private collections) in the U.S. and possibly the world.
MOST RECENT AND/OR MOST IMPORTANT EXHIBITIONS AND DATES:One-person exhibitions: Curtis had a number of important exhibitions early in his career in both public and private venues. Some of these include: American Museum of Natural History, The Washington Club, The Cosmos Club, The Rainier Club, The Waldorf-Astoria, etc. He also gave many lectures and addresses during the early years including an especially important address at The National Academy of Sciences.
In the 1970s and 1980s: Curtis was given important retrospectives at the Morgan Library and the Seattle Art Museum, among other exhibitions. There have also been a number of other one person and group exhibitions since the Curtis revival began in the 1970s. A major exhibition of Curtis’ work is currently scheduled for 2010 at the New York Public Library.
Beginning in 2000: Collector/dealer Christopher Cardozo began one of the most extensive series of exhibitions on a single artist to have ever been undertaken. There are seven separate exhibitions, of sixty prints each, currently travelling to over 100 venues, in over fifty countries and six continents, all under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State or individual Embassy’s. These museum and public space exhibitions are complemented by three larger exhibitions (up to 160 vintage prints and related vintage material), which are now in their sixth year on international tours to significant museum sites. These exhibitions are being further expanded with a series of exhibitions of large-scale photographs being displayed in indoor and outdoor public spaces beginning in Mexico City in 2010.
Additionally, individual prints have exhibited extensively over the past two decades at a wide variety of venues including, the Met, MOMA, Getty, Victoria and Albert, DeYoung, Whitney, Amon Carter, Minneapolis Art Institute.
MAJOR COLLECTIONS:Curtis work is represented in over 200 public collections including MOMA, MET, Getty, Amon Carter, GEH, LOC, Smithsonian, Morgan Library, Harvard, Yale, Princeton.
In addition, an estimated 10,000-20,000 individuals own one or more vintage Curtis prints.
Curtis prints may be the world’s most widely collected original fine art photographs.
FOR FURTHER READING:Cardozo, Christopher. Edward S. Curtis: The Women. Boston: Bullfinch Press Book, 2005.
Cardozo, Christopher. Edward S. Curtis: The Great Warriors. Boston: Bullfinch Press Book, 2004.
Makepeace, Anne. Edward S. Curtis: Coming to Light. Washington DC: National Geographic, 2001.
Cardozo, Christopher. Sacred Legacy: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Gidley, Mick. Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian, Incorporated. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Cardozo, Christopher. Native Nations: First Americans as Seen by Edward S. Curtis. Boston: Bullfinch Press Book, 1993.
Gidley, Mick. “Pictorialist Elements in Edward S. Curtis’ Representation of American Indians.” Re-discoveries of American: The Meeting of Cultures. Johan Callens, ed., Brussels: VUB Press, 1993, 62-85.
Gidley, Mick. The Vanishing Race: Selections from Edward S. Curtis’s The North American Indian. New York: Taplinger Publishing, 1977.
Coleman, A.D., and McLuhan, T.C. “Curtis: His Work.” Introduction to Portraits from the North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis. New York: Duton, 1972.
Curtis, Edward Sheriff. In a Sacred Manner We Live: Photographs of the North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis. Barre, MA: Weathervane Books, 1972.
SIGNATURE VARIATIONS AND OTHER IDENTIFICATION:Signatures: Photogravures are rarely signed. Goldtones are generally signed (in the negative); typically lower right, visible on recto (in the print), but occasionally lower left. Generally accompanied by a © symbol. Toned silver prints are generally signed in ink, on recto, lower right, with © symbol. Untoned silver prints, rarely signed. Cyanotypes rarely, if ever, signed. Platinum prints generally signed in ink, lower right, on recto. Gold-toned printing-out paper prints generally signed in the negative and often also in ink on recto. (See illustrations.) Because Curtis was in the field for months on end, different people in his studio were authorized to sign his prints. His and his authorized signature also varied over his nearly 40-year career, becoming more stylized by the early 1900s.
Blindstamps: Many of Curtis’ platinum and toned silver prints have Curtis’ copyright blindstamp embossed in lower left and on the mount. On rare occasion the blindstamp is embossed on the lower right. (See illustrations for examples.) Curtis also occasionally used a studio blindstamp (see illustration.)
Studio Stickers: Many mounted platinum and silver prints have studio stickers on verso, as do goldtones. (See illustration for examples.)
Holographic Identification: Many mounted and some un-mounted platinum prints have title or other information in ink on verso (generally top left) and in rare cases on recto on under-mat. Paper-based silver prints also occasionally have title, negative number or often information handwritten on the back of the print or mount. It is not unusual in Curtis’ earlier work to find handwritten information pertaining to title, copyright, date and/or negative in the print (in white) from the holographic information written on the negative.
Negative Number: Often in pen on the negative and frequently found lower left in non-gravure prints and occasionally in the photogravures. The initial numbers are that year’s negative numbers, which are followed by a dash, and then two-digit number representing the year the negative was made. (See illustrations for example.)
Watermark: Van Gelder (Holland) photogravure etching stock virtually always incorporated an eponymous watermark. Other paper-based prints, photogravure and non-photogravure generally have no watermarks.