A Mono Home, 1924

A Mono Home, 1924

FORBES – April 2, 2013

J. P. Morgan, Edward Curtis and Christopher Cardozo: An Inspired Collaboration

Christopher Cardozo lives in Minneapolis. His own photographs of Native people have been widely exhibited and are found in many collections including the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Christopher has spent 40 years of his career collecting, exhibiting, and publishing Edward Curtis’ work. During that time his exhibitions and books have reached millions of people around the world with a message of beauty, heart,  and spirituality; and inspired others to reflect upon the possibilities for greater diversity, understanding, and environmental sustainability.

Three new exhibitions and two new books on Curtis are being launched beginning this year and next.

Michael Tobias (MT): This past week marks the 100th anniversary of the death of John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan. I know that Morgan has a particular importance in your own life given your extraordinary commitment to the great artist, photographer, explorer and ethnographer, Edward Sheriff Curtis, and Curtis’ own indelible connection to Morgan. Tell me about it?

Christopher Cardozo (CC): Edward Curtis created the most valuable and sought-after set of rare books in US history and left the world a legacy of inestimable importance. It is a deeply human story which, at its essence, is imbued with beauty, heart, and spirit. I believe that in no small part, this is why these iconic images have endured for over a century. It also helps explain why Curtis is the most widely collected photographer in the 170 year history of the medium, and why his photographs have been exhibited to rave reviews all over the world, from Papua, New Guinea to Paris.

MT: And J. P. Morgan?

CC: Curtis’ extraordinary contribution would not have been possible but for the insight, commitment, and inspired patronage of a man who at that time was among a small coterie of individuals who were, undoubtedly -in terms of Western and European notions of monetary value  – one of the wealthiest of men, J.P. Morgan. As you noted, we are this week celebrating the 100th anniversary of Morgan’s passing (March 31st, 1913). The heritage that Morgan left us is extraordinary: in business, finance, collecting (rare books, gems, magnificent works of art), etc. It is an endowment that lives on today at the Morgan Library and Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, Harvard, etc., as well as in major international financial institutions.

But particularly with respect to art, culture, and rare books, there are few individuals in history that have left us with such a rich inheritance. The fact that the life of this Titan of Wall Street intersected with a grade-school dropout – Edward Sheriff Curtis – who grew up in abject poverty, is simply extraordinary. That their collaboration resulted in the unparalleled preservation of crucial aspects of a 10,000-year-old culture, is all the more amazing.

MT: Tell me about that fateful meeting between Morgan and Curtis?

CC: When Curtis approached Morgan in 1906 for assistance with his grand plan, Morgan turned him down without even looking at a single photograph. Curtis, of course, was expected to graciously exit the massive wood-paneled office of this all-powerful financier who had just given him an “unequivocal” no. Curtis was undaunted. Before leaving he prevailed upon Morgan to do him the courtesy of looking at a small portfolio of his photographs of Native Americans. Morgan complied, and then according to Morgan’s secretary, Morgan did the unthinkable, he changed his mind for only the second time in 25 years!

MT: Then what?

CC: Morgan agreed to advance Curtis $75,000 to launch what was soon heralded as “the most gigantic undertaking since the King James version of the Bible.” Today, fine examples of those sets of rare books, which never would have been created but for Morgan’s faith and commitment, can sell for nearly $3 million. Over the next two decades Morgan and his heirs ultimately contributed $400,000 to the production of Curtis’s magnum opus, The North American Indian. In today’s dollars this would translate into $10 million based on the Consumer Price Index, or a whopping $200 million as a relative percentage of the GDP. An extraordinary commitment to the world of art, rare books and to the preservation of a record of a people and a culture which otherwise would have been lost forever. Morgan once said: “I like a man who attempts the impossible.”