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A high-tech pair is out to market classic Indian prints

Will Americans buy photographs of the original Americans - the American Indians? Two entrepreneurs from California's Silicon Valley are in the process of trying to find out.

The two businessmen, Steven Kern, vice-president and chief operating officer of Androbot Inc., a manufacturer of personal robots, and Kenneth Zerbe, executive vice-president of Apple Computer, have acquired 2,207 original photographic plates of North American Indians which were made by Edward S. Curtis. They are in the process of negotiating with the American Express Company and Heritage House in Norwalk, Conn., about marketing new prints made from the plates.

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Curtis spent from 1900 to 1928 living with and photographing the 80 tribes west of the Mississippi. His intention was to record and photograph their life styles before contact with the white man completely destroyed them. J.Pierpont Morgan, as part of his interest in anthropology and photography, funded Curtis's fieldwork for most of these years, while Theodore Roosevelt gave him moral support. Curtis was also the Roosevelts' family photographer.

Mr. Kern and Mr. Zerbe are trying to succeed where Curtis himself failed. In 1930, Curtis completed printing 20 volumes, entitled ''The North American Indian ,'' which he sold by subscription. Unfortunately, only a few individuals and institutions bought any. Curtis eventually went into bankruptcy during the Great Depression.

Collectors, however, ''rediscovered'' Curtis in the 1960s and '70s. And in exhibitions in New York, volumes of the Curtis work were sold for as much as $5, 000 each. A complete collection of the works has sold for as much as $60,000.

But attempts to reprint the pictures using Curtis's original plates and his original photogravure process have been much less successful.

The Classic Gravure Corporation, in Santa Fe, N.M., had acquired the plates after they were found in a Boston vault. But the company was not very successful despite the high quality of the prints it made. According to Kern, who bought the plates from Classic Gravure, its attempt to sell the prints to well-heeled investors ran into resistance. ''The company spent more money on printing than it made on sales,'' Kern said.

Enter Mr. Kern and Mr. Zerbe. They purchased the assets of Classic Gravure for ''under $1 million,'' Mr. Kern says, and began trying to determine where their best market would be.

Kern and Zerbe decided to aim their product for broader appeal. So the businessmen went to American Express and Heritage House. Whichever gives Kern and Zerbe the best deal will market the prints through the mail.

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With American Express, Mr. Kern is discussing a deal that involves three buying options. First, there would be a new printing, producing 1,500 prints from each image. The ''lead'' prints - that is, the most famous - would sell for for $600. If anyone wanted an individual print from out of the box, they would be sold at $225 each.

For its part, American Express says it is still evaluating whether to go ahead with the Kern proposal. If it does, a spokeswoman said, it would be the first time it will have promoted prints made directly from the originals using this method.

The Heritage House deal would involve making much larger editions - on the order of 3,000 to 4,000 prints per image. They would be sold for $25 to 150 each , depending on the print.

By way of contrast, Classic Gravure was selling complete portfolios for $4, 000. Each contained 111 prints. ''They were aiming at the collector market,'' Mr. Kern notes, ''while we are aiming to sell individual prints, fairly priced.''

One reason the collector market may not have responded, says Miles Barth, curator of the archives and collections at the International Center for Photography, is the availability of the original prints made by Curtis. ''If I know I can get the real thing,'' Mr. Barth says, ''why pay for the new prints? These are not the same as the vintage prints.'' Furthermore, says Barth, who was a consultant to a company that successfully sold a Curtis calendar in 1978-79, the market for Curtis photos has been weak recently. ''It's kind of like coming out with an Edsel in 1962,'' he says.

Mr. Schauf, however, who is also a dealer in vintage Curtis prints, disagrees. ''Prices for the portfolios have doubled in the past three years,'' he asserts, ''and the prices of primary prints are up 50 percent in the last year. . . . A print you could buy two years ago for $1,500 is now selling for $3 ,500 to $5,000. That's serious appreciation.''

Buyers may also be able to obtain some of the vintage prints for about the same price as the American Express offering. Anne Horton, director of photography at Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc., says a small print in silver tones, signed by Curtis, can be bought at auction for $300 to 400. But the large beautiful prints sell for as much as $5,000, depending on the quality.

Ms. Horton points out that not everyone is a collector, however. ''Some people just want to enjoy these prints on the wall,'' she says, ''or want the convenience and availability that buying these prints through the mail will afford. Some people are not interested in ferreting out a Curtis print. This is why I think this is a different market.'' In fact, she thinks the sale of the Curtis prints may increase the market for the older prints, since buyers of Kern's offering may become interested in buying a vintage Curtis.

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