The North American Indian was compiled by early photographer Edward S Curtis and serves a social record of a vanishing race. Produced between 1907-30 it comprises 20 volumes of text and 20 folios of large-format photogravures that document figures who today hold a legendary status.
Among the subjects is Geronimo, an Apache leader and medicine man who headed a resistance against US settlement, and Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé, who led his people as they were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands by the US government.
Now offered at Swann Auction Galleries’ sale on October 18, the book is estimated at $1m-1.5m.
“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,” said Daile Kaplan, director of the auction house’s photographs and photobooks department.
Curtis started out as a portrait photographer in Seattle in the early 1890s, hoping to document Native American life. His skills came to the attention of future president Theodore Roosevelt who introduced the photographer to JP Morgan, who in turn bankrolled the first phases of the project.
“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,” Curtis said in his introduction to the book.
The project took five years to complete and 222 complete sets were published ultimately. During his work for the project, Curtis also made more than 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Native American language and music and took more than 40,000 photographs of around 80 tribes.
In 2012, Swann Galleries achieved a house record for another, rebound complete set of The North American Indian. It sold for $1.44m.
“All the superlatives are there,” says Kaplan, who handled the 2012 sale also. “Heroic, epic, grand, majestic. This magnum opus has been compared to Audubon in terms of the vision and grandeur of the completed project. 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.”