St. Louis Some of the first portraits of American Indians at home on the Plains will be auctioned off next week in New York, with the 28 paintings by a 19th century St. Louisan perhaps fetching $15 million.
"These are incredibly important works," Andrew Walker, curator for American art at the St. Louis Art Museum, said of George Catlin's oil paintings to be offered by Sotheby's auction house on Thursday.
Catlin, who before his death in 1872, "lived among the tribes, and the works are important as accurate recordings of the people. It's an intriguing group of paintings," said Walker, whose museum has four lithographs of Catlin's work.
The collection includes portraits of chiefs, braves, women and children of the Sioux, Mandan, Blackfoot, Crow and Ponca tribes. There also are portraits of relatives and advisers of Sauk chief Black Hawk after the Black Hawk War in northern Illinois in 1832. Catlin met some of them while they were in custody at Jefferson Barracks, south of St. Louis.
The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, which in 1894 bought the paintings 22 years after Catlin's death, said it was selling works by non-Indian artists to focus its exhibits upon artworks and artifacts made by American Indians themselves.
Catlin arrived in St. Louis from Pennsylvania in 1830 seeking to portray American Indians. He made at least five extended visits to tribes during the 1830s with the help of St. Louis officials and families.
According to Sotheby's, "Catlin's great innovation was in venturing to the homelands of his sitters, instead of meeting and painting them in the foreign environs of the nation's capital or other white environs."
Catlin gave the 28 paintings to friend Benjamin O'Fallon, an Indian agent and younger brother of John O'Fallon, the namesake of cities in Missouri and Illinois.
Benjamin O'Fallon worked as an agent for uncle William Clark -- half of the famous expeditionary tandem of Lewis and Clark. Clark was Missouri's territorial governor from 1813 to 1821 before being superintendent of Indian Affairs for much of the Western wilderness.