Curtis brothers captured Northwest history

TERRY MAURER, WHAT'S IT WORTH?February 24, 2013 

The picture-taking Curtis brothers of Seattle have been in the news recently, with publication of a book about one of them and a strong market for their photographs. In today's What's It Worth? we answer a reader's question about a nice view of Mount Rainier.

This photo is a family heirloom and we think it is in the original frame. It is Mount Rainier, with a lake in the foreground. The signature is Asahel Curtis and it is about 9 by 12 inches. What can you tell us? Is it valuable? -- Margaret in Umatilla

Once one of the most recognized men in the Northwest, Asahel Curtis (1874-1941) is best known today as part of the directions on a sign on Interstate 90 west of Snoqualmie Pass. Exit 47 will take you to a picnic area named in his honor.

In the late 1800s and for years after the turn of the 20th century, Curtis documented the development of Seattle with photographs that traced the growth of the city.

Never as well-known as his older photographer brother Edward, Asahel gained fame in his own right with a daring photographic expedition to the Yukon, taking iconic pictures of the gold rush for two years.

The brothers were partners in a Seattle photo studio at that time. When Asahel returned from the Klondike in 1898, Edward published the gold rush pictures to great acclaim in Century magazine -- and he took credit for the work.

Furious, Asahel left the partnership and the house the two had been sharing. Harsh words were spoken and a lifetime of animosity began.

Author Tim Egan, in his biography of Edward, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, says the brothers never spoke again. "In chance encounters around town," Egan says, "they turned away, even as to a stranger." It went so far that the brothers ignored each other at their mother's funeral in 1912.

While Asahel was documenting Seattle's progress and traveling the Northwest doing commercial photography work, Edward gained international fame. The older brother's 20-volume work, The North American Indian, with portraits of Native Americans, dictionaries and transcriptions of ceremonial songs is considered a masterpiece.

A keen observer and crack photographer, Asahel's pictures recorded the state's agriculture, timber, fishing and mining industries, as well as the growth of his hometown. He was the official photographer for the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

He also was one of the founders of The Mountaineers, an organization devoted to the outdoors and preservation of wilderness areas. A well-known mountain climber and leader of expeditions, Asahel was the first to summit Mount Sushkan in the North Cascades. He was an early advocate of establishing Mount Rainier National Park and, in 1917, he was chief guide at the park. And he always had his camera with him, taking pictures everywhere.

Asahel died in Seattle 1941, leaving a legacy of important historical images, most especially his chronicle of the rush of desperate men to the Klondike for gold in the late 19th century.

This view, a silver gelatin print of very high quality, is an undated landscape of Mount Rainier, looking across Lake Washington. The frame does appear to be original and the picture dates to about 1910. Curtis' signature and copyright mark are barely visible at the lower right of the photo.

While Asahel's work is not as collectible and not as valuable as that of his flamboyant older brother, it still has good value. A picture such as this will be of interest both to photography collectors and northwest history buffs.

A fair market price will be in the $300 to $400 range. Part of that value is in the original frame.

* Terry Maurer, Tri-Cities personal property appraiser, is a member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. For possible use in a future column, direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What's It Worth? by e-mail to tchwhatsitworth@gmail.com.

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