One way to measure the value of a thing is to simply let actors in a free market set it. What one person or entity gives to another in exchange for an item is a rational way to assess that item’s value. When a 20-volume set of Edward Sheriff Curtis’ The North American Indian, along with its 20 accompanying portfolios of 75 large original prints, fetched the highest bid ever last year for the photographer’s work—$2.88 million—its monetary value was clear to see. According to Curtis scholar, collector and curator Christopher Cardozo, the aggregate value of all Curtis’ surviving work would approach three quarters of a billion dollars on the open market.
That value creation all began in 1899 with a young, struggling photographer’s fascination with a poor and haggard American Indian woman who survived as a clam digger and washwoman in Seattle. Fascination grew to obsession and evolved into one of the most ambitious book series in history, and a treasured visual, oral and written record of the original Americans. In an excerpt of Timothy Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis (p. 38), we trace the encounter between Curtis and the clam digger, and in the stunning collection of photos that follow we offer a glimpse of the genius of Curtis and a few of his estimated 10,000 native collaborators.
For Cardozo, who has collected, exhibited, published and written about Curtis’ work for four decades—and who was inspired by that work to become a noted photographer of American Indians in his own right—the value of the Curtis collection extends far beyond its rarity or even its artistic merits. “Were it not for Curtis,” Cardozo said, “tens of thousands of native people would have little idea of what their ancestors looked like, what they believed, how they lived, and what they accomplished.” Cardozo, who is targeting the sesquicentennial of Curtis’ birth, 2018, for the opening of an Edward S. Curtis/Sacred Legacy Museum, recalls how a simple, yet moving comment he received from a visitor to a recent exhibit may be the true measure of the collection’s value: “Thank you for showing me my culture.”
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.