A prince, a castle and Enron: The long, strange trip to get famed Native portraits back to Omaha

Rain was pouring down, and his roof leaked. Dr. Josef Roeder, a German archeologist, needed to find a dry place to work.
A nearby palace hadn’t suffered too much damage in World War II, so, in the years after the war, Roeder got permission to do his research there. Toiling away in a second-floor room, his eyes drifted to a portrait on the wall. 

Roeder contemplated the image of Prince Maximilian zu Wied, then dead for 80 years. He began to wonder: Did anything remain from Maximilian’s famed 1830’s expedition to North America?

With the blessing of the prince’s descendents, Roeder began to poke around the palace. He searched for remnants of the trip Maximilian, a naturalist and explorer, took to document Native American tribes who were staring down a wave of western expansion.

What Roeder discovered, tucked away in drawers, astonished him. 

He found the prince’s thick journals, narrating his journey into the interior of the Northern Great Plains. He found hundreds of watercolors by Karl Bodmer, the artist hired by the prince to document it all.

Karl Bodmer’s portrait of Chan-Chä-Uiá-Te-Üinn, Lakota Sioux Woman, 1833, watercolor and graphite on paper. It’s one of only a few of the watercolors Bodmer painted of women during his journey. Photo by Bruce M. White courtesy of the Joslyn Art Museum

Turning the pages, Roeder followed along on the prince’s 1833 trip up the Missouri, the river curving between St. Louis and western Montana, then sustaining a landscape of bluffs, bison and birds and a network of diverse Native American tribes.

Roeder’s wife, Gertrud, described her late husband’s discovery to the Omaha World-Herald in 1991. She told a reporter how she had helped her husband catalog his findings.

“Looking back,” she said, “it was a revelation. In our hands we had evidence of the vanishing frontiers.”

She’d come to Nebraska to have another look at the works. By then they were property of the Joslyn Art Museum.  Roeder’s discovery was just one of many twists in the tale of how the artwork – never meant to return to the Missouri River valley – came home to Omaha and became a leading collection for the museum. 

Thanks to the archeologist’s curiosity and other strokes of luck and leadership, Bodmer’s art and Prince Maximilian’s journals are on display now in a Joslyn exhibit that runs through May 1.

“Faces From the Interior” highlights roughly 90 portraits of Native people the explorers met on their trip, with accompanying documentary films, artwork, and gallery talks produced by Native artists and educators.

For the 19th century prince and the artist, simply making it to St. Louis to start their work at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers proved a dangerous journey of more than 11 months. They set sail from the Netherlands in May 1832, landing in Boston as a cholera outbreak swept the northeast. 

They made their way inland by steamboat and stagecoach. Maximilian kept notes on their struggles: the raging epidemic, the heat, the flies, rude Americans and his indigestion, not to mention steam engine trouble that nearly resulted in “having our ship blown to bits.”

Finally in St. Louis, the party set out along the Missouri into the “interior” in spring 1833, fighting the current, sandbars and debris. They made it to Bellevue by early May, a year after they’d left Europe, then arrived at their farthest stop, Montana’s Fort McKenzie, by September. 

They had hoped to continue farther west, but Maximilian judged instead that fighting among tribes was too risky. Better to turn around and spend the winter elsewhere – North Dakota.

They would barely survive freezing living quarters, food supplies diminished by rats and a dangerous bout with scurvy. Still, in his winter at Fort Clark among the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes the prince created a lasting, detailed record of the tribes’ traditions around marriage and family life, hunting, spiritual practices and tribal structure.

The body of work that he and Bodmer produced, which became the Maximilian-Bodmer Collection at the Joslyn, “is not only a jewel of Omaha but one well known throughout the United States and Europe,” Joslyn chief executive Jack Becker wrote in an essay that’s part of the current exhibit. 

But when Prince Maximilian and Bodmer sailed back to Europe with their journals, paintings and specimens – including four live bears – it seemed unlikely their work would ever return.

Maximilian rejoined his family at his palace, and Bodmer set up a studio in Paris. 

They collaborated to publish volumes that narrated and illustrated their findings, but their achievement wasn’t fully recognized during their lifetimes. Their initial publications were time-consuming to produce and expensive to purchase, leading to a limited audience.

Maximilian’s journals and Bodmer’s watercolors didn’t become widely known until more than a century later, when the German archaeologist started digging through drawers at the prince’s old palace.

Roeder worked with the prince’s descendents, scholars, and government officials to put the works on exhibit, including a 1954 stop at Omaha’s Joslyn.
Omaha’s interest soon turned to anxiety, though, when the prince’s family sold the collection to a New York art dealer. The family’s goal was to keep the collection preserved and on display in the United States, but it could have ended up in St. Louis or Kansas City, according to World-Herald archives. The Joslyn campaigned for someone local to step up to buy the collection.

Coming to the rescue with the $500,000 purchase was Omaha business giant Northern Natural Gas. Its president, Willis A. Strauss, put the collection on permanent loan at the museum, saying he felt a responsibility to improve the city’s cultural, economic and educational climate.

It seemed like a happy ending. But Northern’s 1962 purchase also explains why the Bodmer paintings on display today have a credit line that raises eyebrows: “Gift of the Enron Art Foundation.” Yes, that Enron, the company that collapsed in scandal and bankruptcy in 2001.

A successor business to Northern Natural Gas still owned the Bodmer collection in 1986. That’s when, in a cascade of corporate dealings, it became Enron, and the renamed company’s leadership relocated its corporate office to Houston in a stunning loss for Omaha. 

While Omaha’s first concerns were for jobs and its reputation, people also worried about losing the Maximilian-Bodmer Collection.

In a final twist of history for the collection, Strauss retired from Enron leadership that year, handing over the company to Ken Lay, who would be convicted 20 years later of conspiracy and fraud.

Before the changing of the guard, though, Strauss and fellow Omaha business leader Walter Scott successfully pressed Lay to donate the collection, by then valued at $14 million, to the Joslyn. 

Having survived treacherous travel and more than a century overseas, the collection was back where it began, for good. 

By Barbara Soderlin

Barbara Soderlin spent eight years reporting on Nebraska business, education, and communities for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal Star. She now works for the University of Nebraska Foundation, advancing agriculture and natural resources education and research. Favorite road trip stops with husband Ryan and daughters Cee-Cee and Clara include Chimney Rock, Homestead National Monument, Carhenge, Smith Falls and any place with ice cream or pie.

2 Comments

“…Ken Lay, who would be convicted 20 years later of conspiracy and fraud.”

Well no. All of the convictions were vacated.

Facts please.