Sweeping landscapes and sepia stares: Inside the rare book depicting the customs and ceremonies of Native Americans that fetched a FORTUNE at auction

 It is widely considered the most lavish and elegantly produced series of photography books ever made - and now Edward S. Curtis' masterpiece, the North American Indian, has become one of the highest selling works at auction.

The Swann Auction Galleries in New York sold the 40 volume series for a massive $1,440,000, making it the most expensive item ever sold at the 70-year-old house - and a glimpse at the stunning sepia-toned photographs show just why it was so desirable.

In an astounding unrivaled feat, Curtis traveled for more than 30 years across the United States, Alaska and Canada to capture tribes including the Apache, the Teton Sioux, the Kato and the Tewa, producing more than 40,000 photographs.

With intimate detail, the photographs chronicled the customs, manners, rituals, songs, languages, and ceremonies of more than 80 tribes, setting them against the stunning landscapes of North America.

Curtis, born in 1868 near Whitewater, Wisconsin, built his first camera in his teens and, when his family moved to Seattle in 1887, set up his own business taking portraits. But when he began photographing Native Americans living on the city's waterfront, his focus began to change.

The images garnered attention and Curtis gathered the reputation of working well with the tribes to create breathtaking prints. He was hired to accompany expeditions to Alaska to capture Inuits and by editors to travel to northern Montana to snap the Blackfoot tribes.

Refined: Left, Curtis captured a member of the Apsaroke tribe in Montana in 1908. The Swann Auction Galleries in New York has now sold the 40 volume series, right, for a whopping $1,440,000, the most expensive item ever sold at the 70-year-old auction house

Curtis recounted how, when he traveled on horseback through the Montana mountains and emerged from the trees to see thousands of teepees in the valley floor below, he knew that he wanted to devote his life's work to documenting the intriguing and beautiful culture of the Native Americans.

At the turn of the century, Curtis began on a thirty-year mission, which he described as an effort 'to form a comprehensive and permanent record of all the important tribes of the United States and Alaska that still retain to a considerable degree their...customs and traditions'.

Working by himself or with assistants, receiving funding from banking magnate J. P. Morgan and asking for donations - as well as accumulating a hefty personal debt - Curtis visited the tribes across North America. There he took the 40,000 photos and made over 10,000 recordings of speech and music.

Stoic: Photographer Edward S. Curtis created stunning volumes of photographs known as the North American Indian over more than 30 years. In 1908, he captured sub-chief Red Hawk of 'the Bad Lands of South Dakota', pictured

The photographs depict group and individual portraits showing communities in ceremonial dress, food preparation, transportation, arts and crafts, homes, games and scenery and the volumes are organised geographically.

Upon completion of the volumes, Theodore Roosevelt, a lifelong friend of Mr Curtis, wrote the forward of the work.

The resulting collection of images and text ushered in a new era of pictorial photography and established photo books as a respected medium, paving the way for the future of the art form.

Extensive: Mr Curtis took more than 40,000 photographs of the indigenous peoples and their customs, from transport and cooking to ceremonial dress and dance. Taken in Alaska in 1915, these two masked performers in the winter dance in the Nakoaktok tribe represent huge, mythical birds

'We were very pleased to have sold this iconic work by a major 20th century artist,' Daile Kaplan, Swann Vice President and Director of Photographs & Photobooks, said after the auction. The price reflects the rarity and beauty of this American masterpiece and the interest in photobooks as an artform.'

Warrior: Pictured in 1905, Geronimo was a prominent leader of the Bedonkohe Apache tribe in New Mexico. He fought against Mexico and the U.S. as they expanded into Apache lands before he surrendered to the U.S in 1886 and became a prisoner of war

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