John K. King Auctions Rare Native American Book Set

Book Value: An exceedingly rare set up for auction speaks volumes about the customs, dress, and traditions of Native Americans


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Those who predict the demise of conventional books in favor of Kindle, Nook, and other e-readers might want to take a look at the catalog for New York’s Swann Auction Galleries. In it, the 20-volume The North American Indian, by photographer/writer Edward S. Curtis, is estimated to fetch between $1,250,000 and $1,750,000 at an Oct. 4 auction.

The consignor is John K. King, owner of John K. King’s Used & Rare Books in downtown Detroit, with satellites in Ferndale and Midtown.

Issued in a limited edition between 1907 and 1930, the set includes text volumes with more than 1,500 photogravures, maps, and diagrams, along with an additional portfolio of 700-plus large-format photogravures. In chronicling 80 tribes, Curtis wanted to document the “vanishing race” of Native Americans west of the Mississippi.

Individual volumes or incomplete sets sometimes come up for auction, but this set is complete — and exceedingly rare — says Swann’s Vice President and Director of Photographs, Daile Kaplan.

In 2008, Swann auctioned The North American Indian for $1,048,000, but Kaplan, a familiar face as an appraiser on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, says one text volume and two folio volumes were missing. But King’s set is intact.

“The other aspect that makes this very special is that more than 100 of these large-format photogravures are signed by Curtis,” Kaplan says.

Photogravures are produced from a copper plate, but they’re similar to photographs in that they both rely on the original negative, Kaplan says. Photogravures have a texture that’s often described as being like velvet.

“These certainly are velvety,” she says of the set. “The large-format images are on a gorgeous Japan tissue paper that’s so delicate, and yet it’s able to hold the subtlety of tone and translate the images so stunningly,” she says.

Curtis, who had photographed President Teddy Roosevelt and his family, approached him about obtaining funding for the project. Roosevelt, who heartily endorsed it, wrote a letter to financier and bibliophile J.P. Morgan, who advanced $75,000 to Curtis. When Morgan died in 1913, his son continued to fund the work.

Curtis anticipated that 500 sets would be published, but only 260 were, Kaplan says.

Aside from its rarity and Curtis’ artistry behind the camera, what makes The North American Indian so important?

“Curtis brought a photographic aesthetic as well as a scientific and documentary approach to this project at a time when the notion of a documentary was in its infancy,” Kaplan says.

He also chronicled a people who had been ignored, misunderstood, and maligned. Although he’s been criticized for romanticizing Native Americans, the result far overshadows any drawbacks, Kaplan believes.

“I think Native people today recognize that had he not undertaken it, they would have no record of family members, no record of their songs and customs. It’s a monumental effort.”

Note: In the Oct. 4 auction, the winning bid for the set was  $1,440,000, the highest price paid for a single lot in Swann Auction Galleries' 70-year history.

book photographs courtesy of swann auction galleries

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