The N.C. Wyeth Return of Tarzan Mystery and the Centenary Return Rebate


New Story Mag, Aug. 1913
New Story Magazine, August, 1913. “The Return of Tarzan,” pt. 3

The Return of Tarzan was published in New Story Magazine in June, 1913, with a cover illustration by N.C. Wyeth of Tarzan dressed in European traveling gear riding through the desert accompanied by Arab companions. The second installment used a typographic cover with a three color design suggesting the French flag. The third installment carried another Wyeth cover that was ultimately used as the dust-jacket cover when the book was published by A.C. McClurg in 1915.

N.C. Wyeth was a prize pupil at Howard Pyle’s School of Art and had been selling covers to magazines since he was 20 in 1903. He was selling to eight different magazines in 1913 and had already begun to make his name with the Scribners Illustrated Classics series by doing the now-classic illustrations for Treasure Island in 1911. He became one of America’s most beloved illustrators.

When the first New Story Wyeth cover came out Ed became interested in the art associated with his signature character. He was excited by the Wyeth and remembered that All-Story had used a dramatic cover by Clinton Petee eight months previously on the publication of Tarzan of the Apes. He sent letters to A.L. Sessions, his editor at New Story, and to Thomas Metcalf at All-Story inquiring as to purchase prices for the paintings. Metcalf, continuing to show friendship toward Burroughs, in spite of his sale to New Story, wrote that the “custom of the house” was to sell originals for fifty percent of the cost of commission which would be fifty dollars, but if ERB made an offer of twenty-five he could likely pick up the Petee for that. Sessions replied that Wyeth wanted $100 for his. Apparently at Street & Smith the artist set the selling price for his work.

Ed thanked Sessions for his time and wrote, “I am afraid, however, that Mr Wyeth wants it worse than I do, so I shall be generous and let him keep it.” He wrote to Metcalf that he had hoped to get the two paintings as “companion pictures,” but since he found the Wyeth too steep he had decided to let the matter drop. He didn’t want the Petee now. It would be 52 years before the Burroughs office walls would find a Wyeth hanging there.

In 1959 Condé Nast Publications bought all of Street & Smith’s holdings and in 1965 they decided to sell the cover art they had acquired. The cover art for the June New Story issue had apparently been sold or given away, at least it was not part of the collection that went to auction at New York’s Graham Gallery. The painting for the August issue, Tarzan climbing through trees with bow and arrow, was in that group however.

Wyeth Tarzan
The Wyeth painting sold by Graham Gallery from the Street & Smith holdings to Hulbert Burroughs in 1965.

That same year, Reverend Henry Hardy Heins, an avid Burroughs collector and compiler of A Golden Anniversary Bibliography of Edgar Rice Burroughs, noticed a small black and white reproduction of the second Wyeth painting in the October, 1965 issue of American Heritage magazine. He immediately brought it to the attention of Hulbert Burroughs, eldest son of ERB and then vice-president of ERB, Inc. Hulbert negotiated for the painting and ended up buying it for $1,500.00. At the value of the dollar in 1965 that was about a 355% increase from what ERB could have had it for.

From the time it was displayed in the offices of ERB, Inc. however, a few people questioned whether the painting had been retouched somewhere along the line. Such questions were usually kept to themselves, but a comparison between the cover art as it appeared on New Story Magazine and as it appears today is reasonably conclusive that something changed on the painting between 1915, when the A.C. McClurg & Co. first edition came out and 1965 when it was purchased by Hulbert Burroughs. In fact, the painting shows Tarzan with a peculiarly vacant look to the eyes, an overlarge nose and a mouth dabbed on as a simplistic gash. These features present an expression that N.C. Wyeth, having been drilled by Howard Pyle in the strictest standards of, not only anatomy but human character representation, could never have let pass on any painting, no matter the subject.

The dust jacket for that McClurg first edition is itself a bit of a mystery. In Burroughs collecting it has become the “Holy Grail” of dust jackets. For some reason very few have ever turned up on the market. This in spite of at least six printings with a total run of 15,000 copies. Probably no more than four or five are known to exist in any collections and they run the gamut in quality. The last one to go on sale was bought by ERB, Inc. last year and is the only Very Fine copy known.

When that jacket went up for sale several photos of it showing different views were circulated on the web. Though the photos were not of the highest resolution, I was still able to make a couple of small corrections to my Recoverings reconstruction and to ascertain that the paper used for the jacket was white and not a tannish yellow as might be expected.

In March of last year, illustrator Thomas Yeates contacted me and Jim Vadeboncoeur about a possible reconstruction of the Wyeth Return painting that hangs in the ERB, Inc. offices. He had been publicly concerned about it since at least 1997 when he had adapted and drawn the three-issue comic book version of the book for Dark Horse Comics. He felt that people had taken for granted that the painting as it now existed was fully the work of Wyeth even though it was plain to him, and to anyone familiar with Wyeth’s work that something in the eyes and face was seriously wrong.

We both wanted to make an appeal to ERB, Inc. to have the painting restored by a professional artist, but the question was: restored to what? How could we make sure that any changes would be authentic? Could the painting be x-rayed or photographed with infrared or ultraviolet to see beneath the paint?

I felt that an in-depth investigation into the painting and it’s history could provide clues as to the retouching, and that only a thorough report could hope to build a case for authentication and restoration of the painting. I set about researching and writing a forensic report that did just that and presented it to ERB, Inc. last fall. Thanks to Jim Sullos, president, and Cathy Wilbanks, archivist, for ERB, Inc. the subject has now been put before the board and is awaiting discussion.

In the course of my research I produced a new digital painting of the Tarzan figure based on my close study of both the New Story cover and the A.L. Burt and Grosset & Dunlap reprint jackets. Recently I presented this to Jim and Cathy and they were able to confirm that I had matched what they could see on the copy of their jacket. I’m now more confident than ever that this iteration is the most accurate reconstruction of this extremely rare dust-jacket.


Over the years many collectors have bought the various versions of the dust-jacket available to them through Recoverings. Now I want to repay you by offering a Return of Tarzan Rebate. If you want to upgrade your Return of Tarzan dust-jacket, simply remove it from your book, put it in a 6×9 or 9×12 envelope with a check for $22.00, mail it to me (send me an email through my contact form on the Recoverings web site and I’ll send you my mailing address) and I’ll send you a brand new, Authenticated Return of Tarzan dust-jacket, post paid. That’s $15.50 for the jacket and the usual Priority shipping and handling..

“But Wait! That’s Not All!” (as the pitchman said)

RETURN FrontispieceIn order to celebrate the centenary of The Return of Tarzan‘s publication by A.C. McClurg & Co., I am sending to every purchaser of the Return jacket a full-color frontispiece made from the first New Story Magazine cover, scanned from a beautiful copy of the magazine and digitally restored, complete with caption. The frontispiece is trimmed to fit inside the book opposite the title page, or it can be framed for your wall or desk.

This bonus will be available to all new purchasers of the Return dust-jacket and all past purchasers who return their jackets for the rebate trade-in until March of 2016.

I’m certain that you’ll be completely pleased with this dust-jacket gracing your bookshelf.