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KOTZEBUE - The North Slope Borough has purchased three paintings from a 19th century sea voyage to the Arctic - watercolors created at the historic moment when Inupiaq Eskimo people of Barrow first had contact with a non-indigenous culture.
"Just for anthropologists, the unbelievable detail of these drawings is priceless," said Richard Woods, a dealer in early Alaska memorabilia. "Culturally, they're priceless."
The paintings are by William Smyth, an artist aboard the HMS Blossom during its 1825-1828 voyage under Captain Frederick William Beechey.
Beechey was trying to meet up with Sir John Franklin, who was coming from the east.
This watercolor is the first painting of the Inupiaq people of Barrow, created by William Smyth during the 1825-1828 voyage of the HMS Blossom. (Courtesy Photo, Inupiat Heritage Center)
The Blossom was on a voyage to meet up with the second Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin. Franklin later become famous for his third expedition, when his vessels were lost and all his crew perished in attempt to chart the final part of the Northwest passage. (Courtesy Photo, Inupiat Heritage Center)
The crew of the Blossom put messages in bottles, then buried the bottles under poles so they could be found by Sir John Franklin's crew when they came up the coast. (Courtesy Photo, Inupiat Heritage Center)
Though they got within 146 miles of each other, they never met. But along the way the Blossom was the first crew to make contact with the people who lived in the northern Arctic, a place Beechey named "Point Barrow."
Smyth (whose namesake is Cape Smyth) wrote an account of the meeting that appears in Beechey's book about the expedition, "Narrative of A Voyage To The Pacific And Beering's Strait, To Co-Operate With The Polar Expeditions."
"The natives, on seeing us anchor, came down opposite the boat in great numbers, but seemed very doubtful whether to treat us as friends or enemies...These people were clothed like the Esquimaux we had seen on the other parts of the coast: their implements were also the same, except that we thought they were more particular in constructing the bow, the spring of which was strengthened with whalebone," wrote Smyth.
"Many of the men wore, as lip ornaments, slabs of bone and stone in an oblong shape, about three inches in length and one in breadth. They were much more daring than any people we had before seen, and attempted many thefts in the most open manner."
Inupiaq family portrait
The most exciting of the paintings is called "Natives of Elson's Bay," a depiction of an Inupiaq man, woman and child. In the painting, the woman wears a garment with a rounded hem and has a tattooed chin. The man holds a bow and wears what looks like a blue-beaded headdress.
It is the first known painting of Barrow Inupiaq people.
"The man must have been a chief in the community or something. And the way the woman's dressed, in a design kind of like a U, we don't make those up here any more," said Diana Martin, collections technician at the Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow.
The other two paintings are focused more on the voyage itself. One is of a ship being tossed in a rough sea, the other is of men erecting a post on land. The crew of the Blossom put posts along the coastline so that the Franklin expedition would know they were on the right track - a bottle shown at the feet of one of the men would have been buried with a message at the base of the pole.
"They're fascinating paintings," Martin said. "It's just extraordinary that somebody did those."
It was a big stroke of luck that the paintings found their way to Barrow at all.
For 30 years Woods, who lives in Juneau, has scanned art auctions all over the world for rare books, early photographs, art and other artifacts of Alaska's history.
When he came across the Beechey expedition watercolors at Bonhams in London, one of the world's most prestigious auction houses, "I almost fell out of my chair," Woods said.
It wasn't unusual for large-scale expeditions to have artists on board - scientific documentation was one of the rationales for sending out voyages of discovery.
But "the kind of stuff you normally see are things out of books, engravings or maps, things published in quantity. When you find original watercolors like this from the expedition it is so rare," Woods said.
Because Beechey's was the first voyage known to have reached Barrow, Woods immediately felt the paints were "absolutely, outrageously important."
Woods, who is married to North Slope Borough School District superintendent Peggy Cowan, got in touch with the borough. If they wanted the paintings they would have to act fast - the auction was to be in just a few weeks.
Woods said that the auction house didn't reveal where the paintings had been for the past 184 years - but one thing was certain, it was unlikely they would ever be on the market again.
"Once this kind of thing is in a museum, it's never sold," Woods said.
Dan Forster directs the planning and community service department for the North Slope Borough. He said borough staff, from mayor's office on down, knew almost immediately they wanted the paintings, though it would be expensive.
"Everyone that heard about them said, 'Wow this is an asset that would be great for the borough to have,'" Forster said.
But auctions at Bonhams can go from start to finish in a flash, and the borough didn't want to lose out. Woods had experience bidding and he volunteered to represent the borough by phone from Juneau.
"When bidding on the watercolors lot started it was over in about 15 seconds. It goes fast and furious and then they are on to the next lot. There is no time for hesitation," Woods said.
It cost just under $12,000 to buy the watercolors. Because the paperwork to purchase the paintings would take time, school superintendent Cowan volunteered to front the money for the borough.
By another stroke of luck, there was a paper conservator repairing historical documents in Alaska - for perhaps for the first time. A Rasmuson grant brought Seth Irwin to Alaska last March and he was able to devote about 60 hours of work to the Smyth watercolors, treating microscopic holes and browning before they headed to their new home at the Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow.
Martin said the three images will be surrounded by prints of other Smyth works, on display for new generations to see.
"I'm really glad there here, it's just something I'm glad we didn't lose," Martin said. "We treasure these kinds of things."