Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Life portraits of important Native American leaders

For many important American leaders of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, there was a ready market for quality, life portrait prints. The American public wanted to know what their Presidents, Congressmen, and military figures looked like, so for almost any such figure of note there were quality engraved or lithographed portraits made. Few such portraits, however, were made of important Native American leaders. There just wasn’t a big market looking for a picture of these individuals during their life-times and so not a huge incentive for printmakers to produce quality portraits.

One exception were the portraits done for Thomas McKenney’s History of the Indian Tribes of North America. For this work, 118 portrait prints, based on life-time portraits, were produced in lithography and issued between 1836 and 1844. Thomas McKenney, head of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs for many years, was a champion of American Indians and fought throughout his tenure to preserve something of their culture, which he recognized as an integral part of the history of the United States.

McKenney took office in 1816 and shortly thereafter began to plan an archive which would house Indian memorabilia. In the winter of 1821-22, a large delegation of Indians including representatives of Pawnee, Sauk, Fox, Menominee, Miami, Sioux, and Chippewa tribes came to Washington to see President Monroe. McKenney took advantage of this opportune time to record their likenesses, commissioning Charles Bird King to paint their portraits. To these, more paintings were added in the years following, many done in the field. This yielded an impressive gallery of Indian portraiture which became the centerpiece of the War Department collection of Indian culture and history. In 1830, McKenney was dismissed by President Jackson and began to plan for the publication of a portfolio of prints of these portraits. Working with James Hall, he added text, making the project a true collaboration.

The results of years of struggle, McKenney’s folio was completed in 1836, after four years of printing. Although he was acutely aware that he was preserving a chapter in history, McKenney could not have known that, had he not undertaken this project, no record at all would remain: in 1865, a fire at the Smithsonian destroyed almost all the original paintings from which the lithographs were drawn. The prints, however, do survive, providing us with rare examples of life-portraits of 118 Native Americans, including a number of the most important Indian figures in American history.

Red Jacket

Red Jacket was a Seneca chief and orator who negotiated with the government of the United States after the American Revolution. The Iroquois had sided with the British during the war, so the government insisted that they give up much of their lands in New York. Red Jacket was instrumental in saving what he could of their lands, as determined by the Treaty of Canadaigua in 1794. Prior to the treaty, in 1792, Red Jacket had visited the then U.S. capital, Philadelphia, where Washington presented him with a “peace medal” which was engraved with an image of Washington shaking hands with Red Jacket. This print, after a portrait by Charles Bird King, shows Red Jacket proudly wearing this medal.

Black Hawk

Black Hawk was a war leader of the Sauk tribe in the mid-west. He fought against the U.S. during the War of 1812, hoping to drive white settlers out of Sauk territory. Much of that territory had been granted to the U.S. by some tribal leaders at the Treaty of St. Louis in 1804, but many of the Sauk and related Fox Indians contested the legitimacy of that treaty, so a group led by Black Hawk tried to reoccupy tribal lands in Illinois during the “Black Hawk War” of 1832. Captured by the U.S. military, Black Hawk ended up on a “tour” of the east coast, including a visit to Washington where this portrait was painted.

William McIntosh

McIntosh was a controversial Creek chief who supported the U.S. efforts to get the Creeks to give up their lands in Georgia. The son of a Scotsman and a Creek woman, he was raised by the Creeks, but was comfortable also in white Georgia society. His involvement in the controversial Treaty of Indian Springs of 1825 led to a sentence of death by the Creek Nation Council, which was carried out in 1825. This print, after another Charles Bird King portrait, shows McIntosh in his Scottish finery.


Not a chief or warrior, Sequoyah was still one of the most influential Native Americans of the nineteenth century. A Cherokee blacksmith and silversmith, Sequoyah regularly had contact with whites and he saw how important their ability to write was. He decided to invent a way to write the Cherokee language, inventing the Cherokee syllabary from scratch. It took a while to convince his tribe, but by 1825 the Cherokee Nation adopted his writing system. This portrait after Charles Bird King shows Sequoyah with his alphabet. It was painted in 1828 when he visited Washington and he is shown wearing his peace medal.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Along with the regular Antiques Roadshow programs, which show the Roadshow stops from the previous summer, the program has been airing a series of "Vintage" shows, which rerun selected appraisals from the past. For each rerun appraisal, the folks at WGBH contact the original appraiser to see how the appraised value might have changed. Recently I got an email from the produces asking me about a map of the Mississippi River I appraised back in 2001 for between $4,500 and $5,000.

Now this sort of map is just the sort of map which has become "hot" in the last decade or so, so when they asked me for a value, I knew it would have gone up, but I figured that just to be sure I would do some digging to see if there was a recent price record on it. Boy am I glad I did! The map had sold at an auction in 2009 for $300,000! As this was such a big jump, I thought it would be worthwhile writing up a posting explaining why I thought this had happened. This blog is a copy of that article. The original appraisal and the article can be seen on the Antiques Roadshow web site. The article follows:

For a map to increase in value about 30 times in 15 years is a huge jump and the reasons for this are quite interesting. Some of it has to do with a change in the market and some with what I call "auction fever."

When I first got into the business of selling maps back in 1981, most collectors were looking for maps from the earliest days of printed cartography, particularly the beautiful Dutch maps from about 1570 to 1650. These were from the Age of Discovery and the maps had beautiful engraving, rich hand color, and lots of fun features such as sail ships, elaborate compass roses, and even sea monsters.

One of the biggest changes in the attitude of map collectors since those early days has been shifting their focus from the decorative appeal of maps to their historical significance. The latter factor has always been important for collectors, but in the late 20th century, collectors became more enamored with maps that focused on specific information about particular events in history — such as the first map to show the City of New Orleans, or a contemporary map of the American Revolution — even when those maps did not have a lot of color and their decoration was limited to their cartouches.

At the beginning of the present millennium, it was 17th- and 18th-century maps that were particularly sought after by collectors, and so were increasing significantly in value. In the years since then, collectors have begun to turn more and more to 19th-century maps — especially those that have some intriguingly direct connection with history. As the 2000s progressed, it was maps like the first to show a rebuilt Chicago, or one showing the results of a seminal exploring expedition to the American West, or a folding map of a newly built railroad, which became more and more sought after and thus more and more valuable.

The Norman 1858 map of the lower Mississippi River is a perfect example of the type of map which has become ‘hot’ in the last decade or so. It has an immediate connection with the history of the boom years of the plantations along the Mississippi — the artist, Marie Adrien Persac, traveling between New Orleans and Natchez on a skiff and recording all the plantations and landmarks he saw along the way. There really could not be a more significant historical document of this region in that period than this map. Combined with the fact that it was a separately issued map — extremely rare today — means that when the ROADSHOW producers asked me for an updated value while preparing the Vintage New Orleans show this spring, I knew it would have gone up a lot since 2001.

My initial reaction was that its current retail value would probably be somewhere between about $20,000 and $30,000, quite a big jump from my valuation of $4,500 to $5,000 in 2001. However, given the way this sort of map had risen so much in demand, I thought I ought to do some further digging to find out if any had come on the market recently.

And am I ever glad I checked. One had indeed come up for auction at the end of 2009 and sold for a huge price! The auction house’s estimate, $18,000 to $25,000, was similar to my initial thinking about this map’s current value — but when the bidding had finished in that 2009 auction, the map cost the buyer $316,000!

There are few American maps that have ever brought that amount, and though the Norman map is special, particularly for that region, to pay over $300,000 for it seems excessive. I can find no similar map for any other region of the United States that has ever sold for so much. So why did it go for so much? My guess is simple "auction fever." Auction bidders with deep pockets sometimes have large egos that lead them to believe if they really want something then they must win it no matter who else might bid against them. If you get two or more such bidders for the same item, those egos can sometimes override any prudent financial sense, leading to prices well above what would be considered a reasonable value. I think something like that may have happened for this map.

So, that brings up the question of what I think this map’s “real” value might be today, having appraised it for $4,500 to $5,000 in 2001. Certainly, the 2009 auction means that my initial thought of $20,000 to $30,000 is too low, but I do not believe that in any other circumstances — without the heat of auction fever — this map would bring over $300,000 again. Still, any potential buyer looking at that auction record would realize he or she would have to pay well above $30,000 for it. So I think that if this map appeared in a retail setting, it would probably be listed somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000. If it came up at auction and bidders were able to keep their egos in check, it might bring half to two-thirds of that price. But then again, fever could strike again at any time!