When National Geographic Magazine first began publishing photos of the far-flung locales it wrote about, trustees threatened to resign on the grounds that pictures would "cheapen the journal," says Maura Mulvihill, director of the National Geographic Society's image collection.
That was in 1890. On Thursday, 232 photos, paintings and drawings that helped to turn National Geographic into an international brand will be auctioned at Christie's in New York to celebrate the society's 125-year anniversary in January.
Works for sale include Steve McCurry's famous portrait of an Afghan girl with piercing green eyes, which was used on the cover of the magazine in 1985 and is valued between $30,000 and $50,000. Staff photographer Jodi Cobb's vibrant picture of a Huli tribesman in Papua New Guinea, which ran in the magazine in 2001, is valued at $1,500 to $2,500. (For all the works on auction, the magazine will retain all publication rights.)
The works for sale are part of an archive of 11.5 million images that were commissioned or purchased by the society and are stored in a giant underground library at National Geographic's headquarters in Washington, D.C. This is the first time that the works have been put up for auction, says Ms. Mulvihill.
Also for sale are works by Maynard Owen Williams, the society's first foreign correspondent, who documented the opening of King Tut's tomb in 1923. "There was not a sound in that formless chamber crowded with darkness....the whole great mass of limestone above my head was a vast burial place," Mr. Williams wrote in the article that accompanied his photographs.
A complete set of "The North American Indian" photos taken by Edward Curtis, the results of three decades of work in the early 20th century, is valued at between $700,000 and $900,000. The society bought the photos and published some of them in 1907 and 1908.
The most expensive item for auction is a painting by Newell Convers Wyeth (father of Andrew), who had been commissioned to paint murals at the society's headquarters that are displayed to this day. His "The Duel on the Beach," which depicts a dramatic pirate swordfight, ran in the 1999 issue and is priced between $800,000 and $1.2 million.—Stefanie Cohen