PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE WEST COAST COLLECTION
Set against a backdrop of prairie and sky, Curtis photographed The Three Chiefs during his two weeks on a Blackfoot reservation in the summer of 1900. The image was pivotal, enabling Curtis to crystallize his vision for a much more ambitious project - his 20 volumes of North American Indian of 1907-1930.
Lot 349 is believed to be one of only two oversized, platinum Master Exhibition Prints of this image in existence, printed by Curtis specifically for his East Coast exhibition tour of 1905-1906. Curtis chose only a small number of what he believed to be his finest negatives from which to produce one or two prints for the show. He never again mounted an exhibition of his work, nor produced such distinctive, large-format platinum prints. After 1905, Curtis also discontinued his practice of signing in red wax pencil.
The extraordinary rarity of The Three Chiefs becomes clearer when viewed in the context of other Master Exhibition Prints, principally the 108 in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, the largest collection in existence. The Museum, however, is missing a number of early, iconic images, including The Three Chiefs. It has long been assumed that these missing prints were held elsewhere, possibly in the collection of The New York Public Library.
This theory has been substantiated by the Curtis scholar, Bruce Kapson, who unearthed a cache of letters from Curtis to J.P. Morgan and to Morgan's librarian, Ms Bella da Costa Greene in the Pierpont Morgan Library archives in 2007. The correspondence establishes that 58 of the 100 prints in The New York Public Library's collection are actually Master Exhibition Prints, specifically selected by Curtis for J.P. Morgan as the best examples of his work.
A typed letter, dated March 1907, from Ms. Greene to Curtis states: 'I enclose herewith a list of Indian photographs which you sent to Mr. J.P. Morgan'. The letter is accompanied by a handwritten list of 58 photographs, including The Three Chiefs (print number 52.) Morgan donated this group, as well as 42 later prints by Curtis to The New York Public Library in 1912.
Lot 349 is identical in format to The New York Public Library print. Typical of the Exhibition Prints, it is double-mounted, signed in red wax pencil, with an embossed copyright credit and date stamp.
The rarity of The Three Chiefs is undeniable. Apart from The New York Public Library's image, it appears to be the only extant print and, accordingly, is perhaps the most significant single photograph by Curtis ever to be offered at auction.
The Three Chiefs, Blackfoot, Montana, 1900