Ok Kevin, so you want to know why I rejected your Carl Moon “orotone" in? Good question, and it’s one that I’m happy to answer. The fact is, I’m not sure that Carl Moon really made orotones. Years ago, I was a believer, and even sold a Moon “orotone” in one of my sales. Now, I’m not so sure.
An orotone, or gold-tone photograph, is a made by a process in which a positive image is developed on a piece of glass coated with a light-sensitive emulsion. Once developed, the emulsion of the image is then coated with a mixture of banana oil and a gold-colored pigment. This process produces images with a rich, almost three-dimensional quality. Perhaps no one photographer is more closely identified with the orotone than Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), who made thousands during the Arts and Crafts period. Virtually all are haunting images of American Indians. Depending on size, subject matter, and condition, a genuine Curtis orotone can fetch over $10,000 at auction.
While Carl Moon (1879-1948) was a contemporary of Curtis, and undoubtedly knew of Curtis’ orotones, there is no conclusive evidence that he ever produced one. Like Curtis, Moon also produced romantic views of American Indians. His photographs were used extensively in advertising for the Fred Harvey Company and other commercial ventures in the Southwest.
Curtis’ orotones were widely lauded during his lifetime, and Curtis himself promoted them using the term “Curt-tones.” There are no similar contemporary accounts for orotones produced by Moon. Thomas Driebe’s 1997 biography of Moon, In Search of the Wild Indian, includes numerous reprints of articles from newspapers, as well as material issued by Moon himself promoting his photographs. None of these articles or self-promotions describe or even mention orotones.
Even more telling, Moon’s illustrated sales catalog for 1916 makes no mention of orotones, in spite of offering customers numerous choices of various paper photographs. Titled Photographic Studies of American Indians, the catalog offered 72 different subjects, each available in three different sizes, at six different price points (see Driebe, 1997, p. 35).
Curiously, Moon “orotones” also lack any time depth in the photographic literature and marketplace. Beginning in 1991 (the first year a Moon photograph was sold by a major auction house), a search of 154 auction records of Moon's photographs compiled by Artprice reveals that Moon “orotones” only began appearing in the marketplace after 2000. By way of comparison, sales of Curtis orotones can be tracked traced back to as early as the late 1980s.
Furthermore, while Edward Curtis used distinctive Arts and Crafts frames for his orotones, Moon’s appear in a variety of forms and none are of the Arts and Crafts period. In fact, the ones I’ve seen don’t appear to be modern.
Curtis also used a thin sheet of plain paper to cover the back of his orotones, which doesn’t hold up well over time. More often than not, this “dust paper” on a 100-year-old Curtis orotone is torn or chipped from age. The dust paper on the back of all Carl Moon “orotones” is quite different. All are covered with a sheet of heavy paper and seem to be artificially aged with flecks of varnish or shellac. The backing is further embellished with a gilt-embossed label bearing Moon’s name and Pasadena, California address. Like the dust paper, this leather label is also often artificially distressed by flecks of varnish.
Finally, the cover glass of every Moon “orotone” I have seen is engraved in script “Carl Moon,” with the signature highlighted in gilt. The cutting of this engraving is always fresh, and has no appearance of aging. Curtis, on the other hand, signed all of his orotones in the negative itself.
All of these discrepancies make me suspicious. Will we ever know if Moon did make orotones? A forensic examination of the various components of a supposed Moon orotone should be able to easily answer the question, but until then, I’d rather err on the side of caution!