Edward S. Curtis Vintage Photogravures

– a primer –

Over the course of nearly 30 years, Edward Sherriff Curtis took some 40,000 photograph of Native Americans, visiting over 80 tribes in the United States and Canada with the intent of recording and preserving the culture of a people he believed were on the verge of losing their identity, their heritage and traditions. He condensed his efforts into his magnum opus project “The North American Indian” – twenty volumes of ethnographic information and photographs, each accompanied by a portfolio of larger images – of which he intended to sell 500 sets by subscription. Ultimately fewer than 290 completed sets (the exact number is unknown) were printed before his failing health and financial ruin ended the project. Of those, over 220 are known complete collections held by institutions or private parties, and therefore individual prints are quite rare.

Curtis offered his larger portfolio-sized images on three specific papers: Holland Van Gelder – a handmade Dutch etching stock with deckled (uneven) edges, Japon Vellum – a smoother paper with less surface texture, and a delicate, translucent Japanese tissue. Photogravures printed on these papers, during Curtis’s lifetime and at his behest, are the only ones which are considered original vintage images. We currently have several photogravures on the Van Gelder paper from the collection of a well-known Montana corporation, depicting the Cree, Blackfoot, Blood, and Assiniboin tribes.

The Great Depression ultimately brought an end to Curtis’s dream, forcing him to declare bankruptcy and disband the North American Indian Company. All of Curtis’s assets relating to the project, including the original copper printing plates from which the photogravures were produced, were sold in 1935 to Charles Lauriat, a rare book dealer in Boston. In addition to the plates, Lauriat purchased completed volumes, an unknown number of unbound pages of text, and several incomplete sets of the larger portfolio-sized photogravures. At some point prior to 1965, Lauriat decided to fill in the portfolio images to create complete sets for sale; the prints he created are known as either the Tweedweave edition, named after the paper upon which they are printed, or as the Sorini edition, after Emiliano Sorini, the engraver who completed the work. Other sources list the date of printing as 1967, but we currently have a collection passed down through a Montana family which was known to be in private hands in 1965, so these photogravures were created prior to that date. Although the Tweedweaves were sold as parts of original portfolios, with no differentiation noted of the paper type, they are considered “restrikes” because they were not printed at Curtis’s behest, and as such they do not command the higher prices of the original vintage prints. Still, the quality is undeniable – they were pulled from the original copper plates by a master engraver and are now over 50 years old! The Tweedweave photogravures allow one to collect Edward Curtis’ work at a very reasonable price.

At some point in the 1970s Lauriat sold the copper engraving plates, and since then a number of restrikes, particularly of the more famous images, have been printed. Various business and individuals have controlled the plates, and prints are still being made from the plates today; in fact, many of the copper engraving plates are currently listed for sale by a notable California art consultant. The key to identifying the age and originality of a Curtis photogravure lies in the paper itself, and in the provenance of each print or collection.