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  • Tim Greyhavens

Three Take-Aways from the Recent Curtis Mega-Auctions

Note: The Curtis Legacy Foundation does not benefit in any way from the sales of Edward Curtis prints, books, or other works owned by private collectors. All his published works are out of copyright, and we do not receive royalties or other payments for the use of his images. We are reporting on these auctions as part of our educational and research programs.

In late June, two massive collections of Edward Curtis prints, books, documents, and ephemera were offered at separate auctions. Together, they represented the most extraordinary grouping of Curtis works that has ever been offered for sale, and the fierce bidding for items reflected the quality and rarity of the lots. Here are some highlights of the auctions and our take-aways from the results.

Santa Fe Art Auction - Christopher Cardozo Collection

Santa Fe Art Auction - Christopher Cardozo Collection

The first sale was from the collection of renowned Curtis dealer and author Christopher Cardozo, who passed away unexpectedly in February. He had been collecting and selling Curtis images and books for nearly 50 years, and he was a passionate advocate for Curtis's art and for many of the vibrant Native Cultures of today. He had been planning this sale prior to his death, and his family decided to proceed with it in accordance with his wishes.

Cardozo's offerings were sold in two sessions at the Santa Fe Art Auction on June 26th. The 319 lots brought more than $1.8 million, including the buyers' premiums. The most exciting lot at the auction was a full set of text volumes only from The North American Indian. The set, number 146 in the limited edition, was bound in a custom and perhaps unique blue cloth binding. It was in near-perfect condition but missing the much-coveted portfolios.

Nonetheless, the set attracted a great deal of attention. After some intense bidding, the lot sold for $922,500 (note: all prices listed here include the buyer's premium, which ranged from 20% to 27.5% of the hammer price). In addition, several volumes from what are known as broken sets (where individual volumes have been sold separately by dealers) were also sold at prices ranging from $8,400 to $18,450 each.

To give you an idea of the value of the portfolios, which have large loose plates suitable for framing, a complete original set of The North American Indian was sold at auction in 2012 for $2.9 million.

The Santa Fe auction included volumes of The North American Indian bound in a custom blue cloth, Photo courtesy of the Sant Fe Art Auction.
The Santa Fe Art Auction included volumes of The North American Indian bound in a custom blue cloth.
Edward Curtis. Geronimo - Apache, 1905.
Edward Curtis. Geronimo - Apache, 1905.

The other top seller of the day was a signed platinum print of Geronimo - Apache (1905). It measured 15 5/8" x 11 9/16 " (39.69 x 29.37 cm) and sold for $123,000.

The second most expensive item at this auction was a rare platinum print of Black Hair - Northern Plains Brave from 1905 (15 1/2 x 11 7/16 in. / 39.37 x 29.05 cm). It went for $24,600.

Perhaps the most singular item in the auction was a huge silver gelatin print of The Vanishing Race. This item measured 24 7/8" x 34 15/16" (63.18 x 88.74 cm). A lucky bidder bought it for $7,200.

In all, 98% of the lots were sold.

Bonham's - Bill Utley Collection

Bonham's Auction of the  Bill Utley Collection

On Wednesday, June 30, Bonham's in Los Angeles offered the collection of long-time Curtis admirer Bill Utley. In the 1970s, Utley became friends with Curtis's daughter Beth and her husband Manford (“Mag”) Magnuson, who lived near him in Los Angeles. At that time, the Magnusons owned the most extensive collection of Curtis's prints, books, documents, and family records. Utley slowly but steadily bought anything they decided to sell, including one print of every available image. By the time Mag passed away in 1993, Utley had acquired most of the Magnuson's collection, including personal items from the Curtis studio and advertising posters for Curtis's ground-breaking film, In the Land of the Head-Hunters.

The Vanishing Race. Orotone, 1904. Photo courtesy of Bonham's, Los Angeles.
The Vanishing Race. Orotone, 1904. Photo courtesy of Bonham's, Los Angeles.

The Bonham's auction included 165 items, including dozens of rare and unusual prints from across the spectrum of Curtis's career. In all, the sale realized $1,733,046. Several records were set, led by the largest orotone ever produced of The Vanishing Race, 1904 (18" x 24", 45.7 x 61cm), which fetched $100,312. Other top sellers were The Scout Apache (1906), a 14" x 17" (35.5 x 43.2cm) orotone that sold for $94,062, and Cañon de Chelly (1904), a 17" x 22" (43.2 x 55.9cm) orotone purchased for $62,812.

The Scout Apache. Orotone, 1906. Photo courtesy of Bonham's, Los Angeles.
The Scout Apache. Orotone, 1906. Photo courtesy of Bonham's, Los Angeles.

The auction also featured scarce cyanotypes (study prints that Curtis often developed in the field), studio shots created at the Curtis studio in Los Angeles, and unique items from the Curtis family holdings, including an unpublished manuscript of a novel written by Curtis.

Three Take-Aways

It is unlikely that such an enormous offering of Curtis prints and collectibles may ever appear at the same time again. As a close observer of the bidding at and results of both auctions, here a few observations from my perspective.

Demand for Curtis's art is stronger than ever. Buyers were willing to go far beyond the pre-sale estimates for many works, which speaks to the quality and rarity of the items that were sold. It is likely that most, if not all, the items went to private collectors, and some may appear again in the marketplace in the years to come. Utley's collection was unique because it included so many family items and documents, and perhaps one or more lucky buyers were hoping to build an equally beautiful treasure trove of their own.

Curtis’s work endures. Edward Curtis lived and worked in a greatly changing world. Because of the U.S. government's policies and actions to “assimilate” Native Peoples, he believed he was recording for posterity what many people thought was the last of Native cultures. Curtis later realized that he had been misled, but the images he created and the extraordinary amount of information he collected remain the most exhaustive non-Native assemblage of visual and written information about American and Canadian Indigenous Cultures at the beginning of the 20th century. His enormous efforts continue to command recognition, study, and scholarship.

The Curtis Legacy Foundation is a growing leader in safeguarding important archives of Curtis's work. With the help of three generous donors who contributed specifically to this cause, the Foundation was able to purchase several lots of unique Curtis family images, documents, letters, and records. We will be cataloging and scanning these items in the near future, and we hope to make some of the most important documents available on our website as part of our research archives.


Tim Greyhavens is a board member of the Curtis Legacy Foundation and the author of scholarly essays about Curtis's work.


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