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Portrait of an artistic dispute


CHICAGO - The Field Museum will auction off a series of 19th-century portraits of American Indians done by artist George Catlin - a decision expected to raise millions for the museum but which has divided its board of directors.

Those opposed to the sale argue that it would forever break up a collection that offers a rare window into the daily lives of the tribes of the Midwest and Great Plains. Those who favor the sale insist that the paintings are worth more as artworks than they are as records of tribal life - which would be more in keeping with the museum's mission.

The paintings were purchased for $1,250 by the museum in 1893, shortly after it was founded as the Columbian Museum of Chicago. Today, the Field Museum is known nationally for the size and depth of its natural history and anthropological collection.

On Thursday, Sotheby's Inc. will put 31 of the museum's 35 Catlin paintings up for auction in New York. Their value is estimated at $9 million to $15 million.

They are known as rare and unusual works: Catlin was the first Western artist to take his brush and canvas on a series of trips into Indian lands in the 1830s in an effort to capture the lives of tribes he believed would become extinct.

"He is the greatest of all our artists of the American Indians and certainly the most adventurous," said David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby's.

But anthropologists at the Field Museum say the portraits lack enough detail to be valuable from an ethnographic perspective. According to Jonathan Haas, the museum's MacArthur Curator of the Americas, the paintings are, in the end, a white outsider's take on an indigenous community and people.

"These paintings tell us nothing that a photograph of the painting can't tell us," Haas said.

That attitude infuriates Chicago business consultant and former museum trustee Edward Hirschland. He had pleaded with the board of directors to keep the Catlin collection intact, insisting that it is not only artistically and ethnographically important but also a piece of Chicago's cultural history.

"Selling these is an intellectual crime," said Hirschland, who was out of the country at the time of the vote. He later quit the board of directors over the Catlin sale. "These belong to the city of Chicago and its people, not hanging in some other museum or on a private collector's wall."

The museum's anthropologists first suggested selling off the Catlins, as well as some other pieces, about six years ago. The goal, staffers say, is to thin out the museum's archives and raise funds for expanding in new areas.

"If you look at our strengths and weaknesses, you will see that most of our collection dates from the 1880s through the 1920s," Haas said. "We haven't had the funds or focus to expand beyond that, which means we're missing entire generations of material."

Catlin was an attorney who gave up his law practice to devote himself to art. After seeing a delegation of American Indian leaders traveling to Washington, D.C., to cement treaties with the Office of Indian Affairs, Catlin decided that he wanted to document their culture.

He turned to one of his fans for help - William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, who was head of Indian Affairs at the time. He introduced Catlin to guides who took him into the Missouri territories and beyond.

Clark is believed to have introduced Catlin to Maj. Benjamin O'Fallon, his first big collector and a well-known Indian guide. The paintings held by the Clark and O'Fallon eventually were passed down to O'Fallon's daughter, Emily.

In 1893, Emily O'Fallon learned that the city of Chicago was building a natural history museum out of the objects and art from the Columbian Exposition's World Fair. She offered to sell the Catlin paintings to the city's new museum.

Letters from the time show that art experts and city officials valued the portraits more for their anthropological worth than their artistic merit.

In an 1893 letter, Frederic Ward Putnam - a professor of archaeology and ethnology at Harvard University who proposed creating the Chicago museum - emphasized that distinction to Edward E. Ayer, the museum's first president.

"They are of the first importance in regard to the customs & costumes of the Indians of 50 years ago and every year [adds] to their importance," Putnam wrote. "A hundred years hence, our people will regard them as priceless, and in forming a museum it is the future that must be considered."

The largest collection of Catlin paintings is held by the Smithsonian's American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., which has nearly 500 of his paintings. But many of those works are among Catlin's later efforts, in which he was re-creating his work from memory and notes.

The Field Museum's collection is believed to be the largest of Catlin's works painted while he was with his subjects. Because of that, many of the paintings have compelling stories, said Redden of Sotheby's.

"We have been contacted by numerous entities about the Catlin sale, so we expect this to be big," Redden said. "Part of their appeal is the stories behind the paintings."

Redden points to the portrait Little Bear, a Hunkpapa brave, Teton Dakota. The portrait led to the deaths of three people and placed Catlin's own life in danger.

Catlin painted the Sioux warrior in a partial profile - a serious-looking man with striking features, wrapped in a decorated animal skin and carrying a tomahawk. Before the painting was done, a rival member of the tribe saw the work and dismissed Little Bear as "half a man" because he was shown in profile.

The two men fought over the insult, and Little Bear was killed. Later, members of Little Bear's band would kill the man and his brother. After Catlin was advised that his life was also in danger, he quickly left the area and made his way back to St. Louis.

"How can this not be considered anthropologically important?" said Hirschland, the former board member. "How can we let these go?"

The museum's board voted overwhelmingly to sell the paintings. (Among the trustees is Jack Fuller, an executive of the Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times and The Sun.)

For decades, curators at the Field Museum have displayed only a few of Catlin's richly colored portraits. Until last year, three or four of the portraits were tucked in a corner of the Field Museum's library as part of a larger permanent exhibit of Indian artifacts.

After the vote to sell them, the portraits being exhibited were removed and joined the remainder of the collection in a museum warehouse.

Haas said that the museum will hang onto four of the Catlin paintings to keep a piece of "our heritage and of our past."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing Newspaper.

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