Rare Louis Riel photographs recovered

The University of Manitoba received a new set of rare 140–year–old photographs of Louis Riel and Manitoba from a civil war memorabilia auction in Australia. They were made available to the public on Friday after a process of authentication to prove that the photos are valid and a valuable addition to the collection.

There are eight photographs in total, which now sit in an air-regulated, protective glass case. The photographs are in good condition considering their age and the journey they have taken to arrive in Canada.

The photos contain a range of images, from Louis Riel to settlements on the Red River. A picture of Riel shows him in the centre of a group of councillors from the Métis Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia. The photograph is dated from approximately 1869 and is thought to be one of the earliest prints available. The U of M has suggested the photographer to be Ryder Larsen.

Also included in the collection is a photograph of Ojibwe peoples mourning the loss of a loved one in a graveyard located in Lake of the Woods, Manitoba, and an image of what would have been considered a traffic jam at the time at the intersection of Portage and Main, which was surrounded by mere dirt roads in 1874.

The process behind discovering the images and bringing them to the U of M was quite a secretive one. Individuals who deal with companies to auction off their memorabilia are highly protected and access to their information is regulated.

The U of M has issued a request to look into the background information behind the discovery; it is uncertain if that request will be granted, as it is difficult to gain attention due to the distance between Winnipeg and Australia.

Shelley Sweeney, head of archives and special collections at the U of M, told the Manitoban about the steps taken to find the photos.

The U of M was offered the photos by a local rare book dealer, who bought them off another rare book dealer in Victoria who had purchased them directly from the auction in Australia. This makes the proof of purchase easy to authenticate. Sweeney said that there is always a possibility that the photos could be fraudulent, but the market for counterfeit photos in regards to this is very small to nonexistent.

The price of the photographs and the context the photographs were found in are both indicators of authenticity. They were part of a larger lot of civil war memorabilia and, according to Sweeney, they also looked at the internal evidence by comparing them to authentic cartes de visites photographs.

“They certainly seemed to have all the consistent characteristics of a cartes de visite from that time period, and the fact that it was an albumen print was correct, so everything from an internal view was consistent with being correct.”

According to Sweeney, the book dealer could have separated each piece in the collection and sold them in the U.S. for more money. The only issue with doing this is that it is a lot more time-consuming. The ratio of time and money could have made that route less attractive for the dealer. It is possible that the dealer thought it was important for Manitoba to have the photos.

The U of M paid $6,500 for the eight photographs, but it is those of Louis Riel that hold the most value, explained Sweeney.

Some of the photos are duplicates that other collections already own, while others are one of a kind.

Sweeney explained that the photograph is also of particular interest given its time and type. Cartes de visites were similar to baseball cards in size and were often given to friends and family. Sweeney also mentioned the timing of receiving the photographs as an interesting coincidence.

“The recent Supreme Court decision [regarding Métis land claims] is exactly what Louis Riel and his councillors had negotiated with Canada: that the government had not met their fiduciary duty.”