Christie's Auctions Off National Geographic Society Archives

The National Geographic Collection: The Art of Exploration
“Guy Morandière and Octopus,” by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, 1950 Cousteau, Jacques, Tailliez, P. & Dumas, F. / The National Geographic-Christie's Images

Who can forget those eyes? Two pools of blue in a sunburnt face, staring out from the depths of Afghanistan. When Steve McCurry's "Afghan Girl" appeared on the cover of National Geographic in June 1985, the image became an instant icon, capturing the magazine's exploratory spirit and dedication to top-notch photography.

A print of "Afghan Girl" will be among the 200-plus treasures from the National Geographic Society's archives to go under the gavel at Christie's this week. The auction, on Dec. 6, comes just ahead of the Society's 125th anniversary, with proceeds going toward preserving the archive and supporting emerging photographers and artists. Additionally, one lot—114, with its summertime crowds jazzing it up on the post-war Jersey boardwalk—will be dedicated to helping victims of the recent flooding there. "After Hurricane Sandy passed, National Geographic and Christie's wanted to make that lot more prominent," says Katherine Brambilla, the associate vice president for Christie's Private & Iconic Collections.

The archives for sale are stunning—a veritable cabinet of curiosities. Their marvels span the natural world's weirdest geography and wildest fauna, the history of mankind, and the mysteries of deep space. Dinosaurs are here, in colorful gouache, as are lions and penguins in vivid close-up. We've got mummies and mammoths, African dancers and grand Islamic mosques, the aurora borealis and the atom bomb (in a U.S. Navy photo from Bikini Atoll).

Fittingly, the photos breathe exoticism and adventure. Some of the greatest expeditions of the 20th century are captured in medias res: the Peruvian trek that discovered Machu Picchu; the opening of Tu­tan­khamen's tomb; the Apollo 11 astronauts touching down on the moon. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay grin from Everest during their historic summit, while Jacques Cousteau snaps a fellow sea diver. There's a shot of the submerged Titanic, ghostly in the deep, and a scene of Lucky Lindy touching down at Croydon Field, his monoplane engulfed by adoring crowds.

Many of the offerings come from the darkrooms of legendary artists—Ansel Adams ("Half Dome From Glacier Point"), Alfred Eisenstaedt ("Ballet Rehearsal at the Paris Opéra"), Margaret Bourke-White ("Union Station Tower, Cleveland, Ohio"). Others are the work of shutterbugs who may be obscure to the wider public but whose names ring like legends in the annals of National Geographic history. One such fellow, Maynard Owen Williams, was hired in 1919 as the Society's first field correspondent, and went on to document decades of travels for the magazine. One of the few journalists to be invited to the opening of King Tut's tomb, he also joined the 1925 MacMillan Arctic Expedition (see lot 163, "Noo-Ka-Ping-Wa and His Harpooned Walrus Trophy") and the 1931 Citroën-Haardt voyage across Asia, wherein a group of hardy thrill seekers wended their way from Beirut to Beijing by motorcar, pony, camel, and yak. (Williams later called it "the greatest adventure" of his life.)

Not all the expeditions ended so felicitously. The auction includes several previously unpublished prints from Herbert Ponting, the official photographer for Robert Scott's ill-fated trek to the South Pole. Ponting—who developed his film aboard the Terra Nova and who left Antarctica early, thereby escaping a grim fate—painstakingly chronicled the bleak majesty of the continent and the day-to-day lives of Scott's crew. In one particularly poignant shot, Scott stands overlooking a snowy pressure ridge, gazing off across the landscape from which he would never return.

Six years earlier, en route to the globe's opposite extreme, Adm. Robert Peary had posed for a self-portrait (lot 3) by the Stars and Stripes at Canada's Cape Stallworthy. Three years later, he set up a closer shot (lot 153), his grizzled face peeking out from a thick foxtail hood. His expression is resolute and a little weary, but his eyes are dancing. He'd just found the North Pole—the high of a lifetime.

The National Geographic Collection: The Art of Exploration
“Afghan Girl,” by Steve McCurry, 1984. Steve McCurry / The National Geographic-Christie's Images

With so much world his­tory on display, Christie's wanted the works to be accessible to a broad audience, and set the prices accordingly. The pieces range from an esti­mated $400 for a Norman Rockwell–esque photo of a little boy giving a puppy a boost to the water fountain, up to $1.2 million (or more) for "The Duel on the Beach," a buccaneer battle painted by N.C. Wyeth. In between are gems such as Alexandre Iacov­leff's oil paintings of Citroën's Africa and Asia expeditions ($150K–$200K) and Lewis Hine's print of Brooklyn newsboys gaping at the glory of a passing fire truck ($20K–$30K).

Yet in an archive full of far-off wonders, two of the most memorable offerings fall close to home. In lot 156, William Henry Jackson's photographs for the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey display the pristine wilderness of the American West. The shots, which were distributed to members of the U.S. Congress, helped persuade President Ulysses S. Grant to create Yellowstone as the nation's first national park. And lot 65 encapsulates 20 portfolios of Edward S. Curtis's monumental study, "The North American Indian." Curtis—a favorite of Teddy Roosevelt's—won the blessing of J.P. Morgan to document the nation's tribes west of the Mississippi. Over the next 30 years, Curtis compiled one of the most comprehensive ethnographic studies of a vanishing way of life. The work may set a buyer back $900,000, but its value to American history is truly priceless.