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 20th Century Alaskan Tourism Art & Antiques

Leisure and vacationing, affordable to the working classes only in the very late nineteenth century, defines a large share of art and material culture of the twentieth century (and beyond).

In the Puget Sound area, one visible marker of the tourism industry began with the steamship industry. Companies like the Alaska Steamship Company, formed in 1895, launched ships such as the Willapa that carried passengers from Seattle to Juneau in order to exploit Alaskan gold rushes in the Klondike in 1897 and Nome in 1900. Potential miners and the entrepreneurs heading north to serve them had a perfect ships eye view of the regions frigid and sublime scenery. Seattle served as an unofficial center for Alaska; virtually all explorers and tourists bought their gear and embarked for the Yukon and beyond from Puget Sound.

One very collectible element of this tourist trade is the actual fixtures from such ships. In July 2007, Pacific Galleries offered a chrome mirror salvaged from the ferry Iroquois, a ship that made the voyage from Seattle to Port Townsend and then on to Victoria, B.C., from about 1901 to 1920. This item was stripped from the ship either when it was renovated in 1954 for its next use as a diesel freighter, or in 1972 when it was converted again into a crab processing ship. The Iroquois ceased operations in 1982 and was unceremoniously sunk in the Bering Sea. The mirror sold at auction for $140, a bargain for anyone collecting ships memorabilia from the gold rush era.

Artists were a part of the tourism of the region, and they too rushed to capture the Western and Alaskan landscape and faces of the native people. Their production of these types of works served to distinguish them in faraway cultural centers as sophisticated and adventurous men who hand the mettle to make it in the north and survive. Both the art and identities of the Alaskan Four (Sydney Laurence, Eustace Zeigler, Theodore Lambert and Jules Dahlager) defined the northern frontier as a place for only the most masculine of artists (although there were woman making art during this time as well, most notably Emily Carr in British Columbia, whos beautiful and effecting depictions of Northwest forests, totem poles and native villages are generally more well-known than works from the Alaskan Four).

The Four collectively worked in a style closely aligned with the American Impressionists, and flirted with the romanticism of Germans such as Friedrich as reflected through Hudson River School landscape painters such as Bierstadt and Moran. Since a gallery system was not yet formed in the Northwest, their work was sold through retailers catering to tourists, including Albert Berrys Art & Crafts Shop and Seattles Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe (which is still in operation today).

One of Dahlagers most enduring images is that of the face of a Point Barrow Eskimo, which we sold at auction on June 26th, 2007.

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This tiny piece of ethnographic art, measuring about four inches by five inches, was reproduced multiple times at various sizes for the tourist market; the small size lent itself to easy concealment in the buyers luggage. The image itself, likely copied after a sketch, is non-specific and offers no clue to the identity of the man depicted, as is often the case with such works. This oil-on-board sold for $750 in the auction.

Of the Four, Theodore Lambert is often billed as the artist best suited to the rough Alaskan landscape. He spent much of his time alone in the wilderness, although he did have a close friendship with his mentor, Zeigler. In the June, 2007 auction we sold one painting by Lambert titled Night Camp which depicts a solitary snowed-in cabin and which is dated 1934. We estimated that this work, so evocative of the cold isolation of Alaska, would sell for between $3,500 and $5,000; but, on the evening of the auction, enthusiastic bidding drove the price up to $11,000.