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FOUND ART: DRAMA OF THE FRONTIER LIVES ON IN KARL BODMER PRINTS

This is a story about art. But it's also an adventure story. With the exception of a beautiful maiden in need of rescue, it has all the elements of an Indiana Jones tale. It has a frontier explorer, Indian chiefs, buffalo herds and circling vultures. It has lost works of art, the mysterious people who found the art and the mysterious people who bought it. It has a prince, a castle - and, last but not least, a garage in West Valley City, Utah.Last fall, art appraiser Allen Dodworth got a call from a man who'd found 35 old prints, stuffed in a box, in his West Valley garage. The man actually found them some 25 years before (they'd apparently been discarded by the home's previous owner) and kind of forgot about them. But now, newly retired from a his job as a maintenance man, he had time to follow his wife's urgings to clean up. He was sorting through his life's accumulations, deciding what to keep and what to toss away.

Dodworth asked him what the prints looked like. The caller described some frontier scenes. "Says they're by `Bodmer,' he replied to Dodworth's query."Karl Bodmer."

As an appraiser, Dodworth usually gets calls from people who already know what they own is art. They want to know how much to insure it for. Occasionally he'll get a call from someone who has just found a print - and most of those times he ends up telling the caller the print is just a copy of a masterpiece, with no value except the sentimental kind.

"But about eight times a year someone has found or inherited something that turns out to be wonderful," says Dodworth.

"In the six years I've been doing appraising I've never had a find this special."

When the retired man and his wife brought the prints to the art appraiser's office, Dodworth looked through them with growing excitement. They appeared to be, as he'd hoped, etchings by Karl Bodmer. Rare, historic, Western masterpieces.

Dodworth grabbed the retired couple and the prints and headed for the University of Utah, where, as fate would have it, resides an expert on Karl Bodmer as well as one of the nation's best collections of Bodmer's prints.

Dodworth went to Madelyn Garrett, restoration department, Marriott Library."Bodmer was the first European-trained artist to ever visit the American West," Garrett says. Until the coming of photography, his were the only accurate and detailed pictures of the Missouri River and the Plains Indians. They remain the only color pictures. And, she says, though Bodmer himself is not well known, he gave the world itsmost popular stereotypes and symbols of frontier life.

Sitting in the bare and brightly lit restoration workshop, Garrett clenches her fists for emphasis as she describes the historical importance of his work.

"The Mandan and Minnetarre tribes were decimated by smallpox just three years after his visit," she says. And the wildlife and the forests were dying, too. The West Bodmer saw soon disappeared forever.

The Swiss artist was only 23 years old in 1832 when he was selected to accompany Prince Maximilian zu Weid, the famous German naturalist, to America. Using a shallow-draft steamboat, The Yellow Stone, the two explorers followed the Missouri River to its headwaters in what is now Montana. They recorded everything they saw, Maximilian through scientific notes and Bodmer through 427 watercolor drawings.

Two years later they went back to Europe and began to prepare a book. Maximilian had successfully published a beautiful and expensive description of the natural world some years before. But the publishing world was changing and he could find no one to take on his second book. So he spent a decade - as well as a good part of his fortune - trying to publish it himself.

Maximilian hired 26 of Europe's most skilled engravers to work with Bodmer, turning watercolors into etchings. Under Bodmer's direction, the artists would copy sections from several different paintings, creating a lushly detailed and dramatic final product.

The books were to be sold by subscription - one illustrated section a time. When no one subscribed to the first section of the book, Garrett says, Bodmer began revising the illustrations to make the scenes ever-more gruesome. Where before two vultures may have circled the sky over the carcass of a buffalo, in later versions a dozen birds flew over plains littered with bones.

The engravers produced 33 small vignettes, suitable for binding, and 48 large "tableaus." "Subscribers had the option of all black-and-white or all hand-colored prints," Garrett explains.

A German version, then a French and English version of Maximilian's book all failed to sell - which is why relatively few of his prints still exist.

Bodmer, bitterly disappointed, left Maximilian's employment. He became part of the Barbizon movement and supported himself as a magazine illustrator.

"And this is one of the most fascinating things about Bodmer," says Garrett. "His images kept reappearing." Bodmer illustrated articles about the West. Then other European magazine illustrators copied his work. Then American illustrators on the East Coast copied the work of Europeans.

It's crazy but true. Garrett smiles as she explains: To look at an article about Navajos published at the turn of the century in Harper's magazine in New York is to see an interpretation of a watercolor Karl Bodmer made 75 years earlier, an illustration of a Mandan chief in full headdress.

His images lingered. But Bodmer's original watercolors disappeared. They were lost - and it was a loss for ethnographers and historians seeking the truth about the American West - for more than 100 years.

The watercolors were discovered again, after World War II, hidden in the place where, logically, they must have been all along - in Prince Maximilian's Neuweid castle, near Coblenz, Germany.The University of Utah's collection contains many of Bodmer's hand-colored prints. They were purchased in 1972 with a grant from the Marriott family. The Bodmer collection has increased in value many times over, says Gregory Thompson, the library's assistant director. He's hoping to find funds to mount a major exhibit of Bodmer's work within a few years.

Meanwhile, Madelyn Garrett continues to do research on Bodmer, comparing his prints to the original watercolors, which now reside in Nebraska. "I'm in heaven every time I touch the collection," she says.

She's in heaven pretty much full time, now, as it turns out, because she's busy restoring the prints found in West Valley City for the local businessman who bought them. Their stint in the garage didn't hurt the prints, too much, Garrett reports.

As for the people who found them, they want to remain anonymous. They got paid several hundred dollars for most of the prints, and several thousand dollars for a few of them. Not a fortune, but a lot of money for them, they say.

And the man who bought them - though he may display them in a public building someday - doesn't want to talk about his art collection either.

No matter, says Allen Dodworth. "The real hero of this story anyway is Madelyn Garrett." She's the one who could recount the whole history of these beautifully detailed and historically important etchings.

"I sure didn't think they were worth much," says the wife of the man who found them. "They were only black-and-white. I like something more colorful, scenery, landscapes. I wouldn't have given them wall space."