CHICAGO — The Field Museum will auction off a series of 19th century portraits of American Indians by artist George Catlin -- a decision that is 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 rare collection that offers a 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 art than they are as records of tribal life, and therefore are less important to the museum's focus.
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 Dec. 2, 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 Field curator Jonathan Haas, 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's an attitude that infuriates 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 was 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 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 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 practice to devote himself to art. After seeing a delegation of Native American leaders traveling to Washington, D.C., to cement treaties with the U.S. Bureau 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. Clark, who was head of Indian Affairs at the time, 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, Catlin's first big collector. The paintings held by the Clark and O'Fallon families were passed down to O'Fallon's daughter, Emily.
In 1893, Emily O'Fallon learned that Chicago was building a natural history museum out of the objects and art from the World's Fair. She contacted Julia Grant, widow of President Grant, and 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 a letter from 1893, Frederic Ward Putnam -- a Harvard professor who proposed creating the 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, which has nearly 500 of his paintings.
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.
Redden points to the portrait "Little Bear, a Hunkpapa Brave, Teton Dakota." The painting led to three people's deaths and endangered Catlin's life.