E. S. Curtis Print Identification Treatise Introduction--In this brief document, we provide an overview of the history of Edward Curtis' landmark publication, "The North American Indian," as well as some background information on its printing history. Since Curtis items are appearing on eBay with increasing frequency, We thought it would be useful to present a concise (although admittedly incomplete) "Curtis Primer Page" including basic technical information designed to aid in the identification of original "vintage" gravures and more recent "restrikes." Over the past few months we have received innumerable requests for information by both bidders and sellers, as well as queries regarding the authenticity of Curtis items. This document is an attempt to make this rather obscure information a bit more accessible, and to use eBay as an arena for educating potential bidders as well as auctioning items. Hope you enjoy! If you have any additional information or corrections, we'd love to hear from you. Background Information--Beginning around 1904, Edward S. Curtis began work on "The North American Indian," dedicating himself to the monumental task of photographing and recording Native American groups "before they vanished forever." This project, funded in part by the tycoon J. Pierpont Morgan, was to last 30 years, consuming the greater part of Curtis' life. The end product, however, was magnificent. Often identified as the greatest publishing achievement since the King James Version of the Bible, Curtis' deluxe 20 volume opus is a photographic and aesthetic masterpiece (as well as an amazing ethnographic achievement). The original intent was to produce 500 sets of "The North American Indian," which started in 1907 with the issue of Volume 1/Portfolio 1. The original subscribers were told that it would take Curtis seven years to complete his documentation. However, 23 additional years passed before the twentieth and final volume was printed in 1930. During his 30 years of work on the book, Curtis visited all major surviving Native American ethnic groups in North America. Although he is now remembered as a photographer, Curtis recorded voluminous ethnographic field notes relating to the culture and lifeways of each group. These field notes were edited, printed, and bound into 20 separate volumes, each dealing with a group of geographically related tribes. Each volume had text pages interspersed with beautiful gravure prints of his large-format field photos. All told, there are 1,510 volume images--approximately 75 per volume. Each volume was accompanied by a leather portfolio of around 35 larger sized (folio) gravures. Based on the actual subscription lists, approximately 272 complete sets of "The North American Indian" were produced, each consisting of 20 portfolios and 20 volumes (while there has been some debate over the exact number of complete sets sold, most researchers agree that these figures are close approximations). When Curtis died in 1952, he and his work had been all but forgotten. This is due largely to the deluxe nature of his publication, which inevitably consigned it to rare book rooms in large universities, and the hands of a few wealthy individuals. In 1935, just after finishing the series, Curtis' company (The North American Indian, Inc.) sold all of its assets to Charles Lauriat Books of Boston, Massachusetts. Over the next 40 years, Lauriat tried to sell the surplus Curtis material, but there was little interest. At that time, Lauriat was offering complete sets for the price of $885, with few buyers. Browsers in his shop could pick up volume gravures for a song, if they were willing to dig through the bin where he kept them stacked. Curtis' original copper plates used to print the gravures were also acquired by Lauriat, and lay forgotten in the basement of his bookshop until they were "rediscovered" in 1972. Things began to change in the mid 1970's. A series of small museum exhibits revived interest in Curtis' Native American photographs. With a few years, a major "Curtis Revival" was underway and ever since, his work has been in extremely high demand--both as historical documents and "high art." In a recent survey, the Index to American Photographic Collections ranked Edward Curtis the 17th most collected photographer in the country (as measured by the number of major collections that have acquired his work). Today, collectors pay top dollar for vintage Curtis material. A single volume plate now sells for anywhere between $150 to $3,000, with some portfolio plates fetching as much as $35,000! In Sotheby's latest catalog, the pre-auction estimate for a complete set of The North American Indian was $500,000 to $750,000 (quite an increase from Lauriat's $885!). Every year, vintage Curtis material from "The North American Indian" becomes more and more scarce. Of the original 272 sets, the vast majority were sold to universities, major libraries, and wealthy individuals. Over the years, most individually-held sets have been bequeathed to institutions, and it is estimated that nearly 85% (200 to 225 out of the 272) of all existing sets are now in institutional hands as complete sets-and are therefore not available commercially, either as partial sets (complete portfolios or volumes) or as individual prints. There is no precise data on the number of individual loose prints (as opposed to prints in partial volume or portfolio sets) that exist in circulation today, but a conservative estimate would be somewhere between 50 to 70 examples of each image (excluding the small quantity of so-called "green prints" which were printed and cut for inclusion in the volumes, but never bound). Most vintage Curtis material currently on the market is in the form of large "portfolio" prints, which were issued "suitable for framing" in large leather portfolios. The most desirable images in each portfolio were easily removed for individual sale, so relatively few complete sets exist on the commercial market. Individual volume prints are often more difficult to come by, since removing them destroyed the volume in which they were bound. Despite this, the great demand and booming market for Curtis material has led to the cannibalization and "breaking" of intact volumes for their plates (however, it should be noted that certain volumes have been more commonly broken than others--images from less commonly broken volumes appear on the commercial market with much less frequency). ESTABLISHING AUTHENTICITY Given the high desirability and expense of Curtis material, it is no surprise that most buyers want to know how they can establish the authenticity of a given piece. Luckily, with some background knowledge there is little difficulty involved in identifying original Curtis photogravures (also known as "vintage" gravures) from more recent printings (referred to as "restrikes"). Today, it is common to see Curtis images reproduced in books and on posters. These images, however, are mainly lithographs or simple offset-printed images and are easily distinguished by the dot pattern and their lack of a plate impression around the image (photogravure printing is based on the use of a copper plate and a manual printing press, which by definition leaves a crisp impression). Since the late 1970's, after Curtis' original copper plates were rediscovered, a few companies produced limited numbers of "restrikes" from the original plates. Unlike lithographs, these are true photogravures (although not vintage), generally printed on fine "art" papers. So, identifying original Curtis images comes down to discriminating between "vintage" gravures (defined as any plate from the original run, printed for inclusion in the subscription volumes of "The North American Indian") from more recent "restrikes" (defined as any photogravure that was reproduced after "The North American Indian" was originally published). First off, most restrikes are reproductions of the portfolio images, and not the volume images. In fact, the vast majority of volume gravures have never been reproduced in any form. Contrary to popular opinion, none of the restrikes were intended to deceive buyers. Rather, these reprintings were executed in an attempt to make quality copies of Curtis' work more available to the general public, who rarely have access to the original images. All printers went to special lengths to distinguish their restrikes from the originals (such as using distinct papers with proprietary watermarks, numbering their sets, changing the overall size of the image, etc). So, this simplifies our task considerably. Identifying Vintage Curtis Volume Gravures--Two basic things needs to be kept in mind when evaluating authenticity: dimensions and paper type. Once you understand the nature of the materials Curtis employed in making The North American Indian, the identification of originals and restrikes will be fairly straightforward. Note: The following information applies to the volume photogravures, not the larger portfolio photogravures. Dimensions: All original volume photogravures are quarto (4to.) format, printed on pages of approximately 30.5cm x 24.5 cm (or, about 12" x 9"). Examination of various original bound plates indicates that exact page dimensions vary somewhat both within and between volumes, however they are always within .5cm of the above dimensions. The dimensions of the image and plate impressions vary depending on the particular image. Most images tend to average around 19cm x 14cm (5.25" x 7.25"). Plate impressions are slightly larger, averaging around 2cm x 18cm (8" x 7"). If you have a volume gravure larger than around 31cm x 24cm, it is a restrike (of course, this does not apply to the larger portfolio gravures). However, you may encounter original gravures that are slightly smaller than the standard quarto size due to margin trimming (the image size, of course, would be unaffected). Paper: Curtis used only the finest archival "art" papers when printing the North American Indian. The quality of these papers is now evident--after 80 years most of them still look fresh and new. There is rarely any foxing, age toning, or deterioration to these plates (although all stock used by Curtis was manila, or slightly yellow, to begin with), so "apparent age" is a poor indicator of authenticity (although older art papers tend to have a crisper feel than newer stock). Even though general appearance may be misleading, paper type is a sure marker of a "vintage" gravure. Over its 25 year printing period, three (and only three!) types of paper were used in the printing of The North American Indian. They are: Dutch Van Gelder (a watermarked paper), Japon Vellum (a parchment-like rice paper variety), and Japan or Tissue (hand made Japanese tissue paper). Only thirty to forty sets were produced as Tissue, with the remainder divided between Van Gelder and Vellum (resulting in about 166 sets each). Because of the scarcity of prints on tissue, as well as their outstanding registration, they usually command a higher price (in fact, the subscription records indicate that Curtis charged a 30% premium to subscribers ordering tissue editions!). All of the printing and most of the photogravure plate making was done in Boston by two printing firms, who ultimately gained control of the plates through a bankruptcy hearing. So, how can you identify these various paper types? It's a relatively simple process, if you know the characteristics of each paper type, and what to look for: Dutch Van Gelder paper-This is a hand-milled, manila, watermarked paper. Hold it up to the light and you will see the words "Holland Van Goldier Zonen Papper" within the paper (although it should be pointed out that occasional sheets do not contain the watermark, due to the way the folio sized stock was cut). This was the paper that Curtis originally chose for the the majority of his photogravures, but he discovered that the less expensive Japon Vellum absorbed the image just as well with the same sharp registration, so the majority of volumes are equally split between Van Gelder and Vellum. No restrikes have ever been printed on Van Gelder. Japon Vellum-This is a true misnomer. Japon vellum is neither Japanese, nor vellum! Rather, it is a parchment-like paper made from a rice base. It is a thick, stiff, yellowish stock, with a slightly waxy feel and a distinct surface texture-not at all similar to Van Gelder. No restrikes have ever been printed on vellum. Tissue (a.k.a. Japan)-This is a very unique type of paper, and gravures on tissue are among the rarest (and finest) of all printings. The image is actually printed on a very fine, thin piece of Japanese silk tissue paper (~5" x 9" ), which is then affixed with a gum adhesive at all four corners to a standard quarto (12" x 9") backing paper. This mounting technique is often referred to as chine-collé or chine-appliqué. No restrikes have ever been printed on tissue. So, original photogravures are identifiable based on both paper size and type. If the dimensions are correct, and the paper is one of the three listed above, it is definitely a vintage Curtis volume photogravure. Any other types of paper are newer, and therefore restrikes. Recent Printing History-Within the last 20 or so years, two companies have produced commercial restrikes. These are also very easy to identify: the American Express Company issued approximately 20 different volume prints on "Arches" paper (also known as Rives BFK paper), a markedly yellow, commercially produced paper that was smaller than the actual 12"x9" original Curtis volume dimensions. Also, in the late '70's and early '80's the Classic Gravure Company of Santa Fe, New Mexico, released a series of prints on "Classic" paper. These are readily identified due to the "CG" and "E. Curtis" signature watermarks. In 1980, they released a beautiful oversize folio (14.25" x 10.5") volume with images from several different groups. They had planned to reproduce Curtis' entire 20 volume set, but unfortunately after completion of only 228 of 250 copies of the first book, they went bankrupt. They also begin a print-run of the folios, but went out of business before completion of the series. In 1982, the original Curtis plates were purchased by The Curtis Collection, the present owners, who have released more restrikes of select volume and portfolio gravures. The Curtis Collection purchased the remaining inventory of Classic Gravures restrikes, but prints their own gravures only on Arches paper (and in a larger 11" x 14" format). A final word about restrikes-while these are not "authentic" or "vintage" Curtis gravures, they should not be considered "fakes" or "knock-offs." They are very fine archival photogravures made from Curtis' original plates, often produced in limited editions. They therefore provide an affordable alternative to purchasing an original photogravure. A typical volume restrike can be found for around $50, while portfolio images usually sell for around $200. Compare this to vintage volume gravures, which start at around $150, and can reach in excess of $3,000--and highly desirable portfolio images are currently fetching as much as $35,000!. Remember, if you own a vintage Curtis gravure, you possess a very rare and special piece of art with great historical importance. At most, there are only 50-70 examples of each volume print available for purchase, as the remaining 200 or so sets are archived in rare book rooms and private collections. The dwindling supply of original gravures ensures that Curtis material will appreciate in value with each passing year. In fact, in the late 1980's you could by a full 20 volume set at auction for a mere $200,000--at the latest Christie's auction, however, a full set sold brought more than $750,000 by the time the gavel fell. Not bad for a man whose work was largely forgotten until the late 70's! This marvelous article was written by: By Kevin P. Groark You can contact him at koyemshi@qnet.com

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