John James Audubon (1785-1851) was an American naturalist and painter whose detailed illustrations of American birds in their natural habitat first appeared in 1827 under the title, “The Birds of America”. Over the years prints from “The Birds of America” have become rare and coveted finds for collectors. In January 2012, for example, a complete Havell’s Edition of Audubon’s “The Birds of America” sold at Christie’s auction house in New York for $7.9 million. Individual prints offered by dealers can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, identifying and authenticating original Audubon prints can be a challenging.
There are at least five collectible editions of Audubon’s “The Birds of America.” The Havell Edition, arguably the “holy grail” of Audubon print editions, consists of 435 life-size and meticulously detailed illustrations of birds that were produced over an 11 year period from 1827 to 1838. The Havell prints were hand-colored engravings with aquatint and etching produced in collaboration with Robert Havell, Jr., a London engraver and colorist. Experts estimate that between 175 and 200 complete sets were produced during that time, and that today only 120 complete sets are known to exist. Many of the individual Havell prints sold at auction or by dealers were separated from their bindings long ago.
The Octavo Edition, published in the United States from 1839 to 1844, was a collection of 500 octavo or miniature hand-colored lithographs measuring approximately 6 ½ inches by 10 inches. The Havell and Octavo editions of “The Birds of America” were both published during John James Audubon’s lifetime.
The Bien Edition, published between 1858 and 1860, consisted of chromolithographic prints created by Julius Bien and published by Audubon’s son, John Woodhouse Audubon. The Bien Edition consisted of 150 images on 105 plates with some plates having two images. Production of the Bien Edition ended in 1860 with the onset of the American Civil War.
In the 20th century, two more “complete” editions of “The Birds of America” were published for collectors: The Amsterdam Edition, published between 1971 and 1972, and The Abbeville Edition, published in 1985. Both were exact replicas of the earlier Havell Edition right down to the images and page dimensions. The Amsterdam Edition was published using the original folio acquired by the Teyler Museum in The Netherlands in the early 19th century. The Abbeville Edition was published by the National Audubon Society and The Abbeville Press who worked from copies of the original Havell Edition to commemorate Audubon’s 200th birthday.
But that’s not all. To further complicate matters, one Audubon expert estimates that there were millions of low quality Audubon print reproductions issued by various job printers during the first third of the 20th century.
So how do you determine which publication produced your Audubon print? We’ve put together a checklist that will help you determine whether you own a decorative ornithological print or something more important.
- PRINT SIZE. Size is important. All original Audubon Havell Edition engravings were printed on “Double-Elephant Folio” size, hand-made wove paper measuring approximately 39 ½ inches by 26 ½ inches. Be sure to examine your print carefully. It was common practice during the 19th century to trim Double Elephant Folio Audubon prints so that they would fit into existing frames. While trimmed Havell prints are not as desirable as untrimmed prints, they are still highly collectible.
- WATERMARKS. All Havell prints were watermarked “J. WHATMAN” along with the date of publication or “J WHATMAN / TURKEY HILL” and the date of publication. James Whatman was the founder of an important family of British paper makers, and it was his company that made the paper for Audubon’s earliest bird prints. Whatman watermarks can be seen clearly with the aid of a long wave ultraviolet light (also known as a Black Light), or by holding the print up to a natural light source. If you see different watermark on your Audubon print, such as “G. Schut & Zonen or “Audubon Society, Abbeville Press,” don’t fret. Audubon prints from the later Amsterdam and Abbeville Editions both carry clearly printed watermarks on high quality wove paper.
- PLATE MARKS. The Havell Edition was printed using copper engraving plates, so there should be plate marks on the paper. As the images were initially printed in black & white and then hand colored, there are instances where the color either goes outside or doesn’t meet the black lines of the image. Be sure to check the upper right corner of your print as well. You should see the plate number clearly printed in Roman numerals. These details can help with authentication and identification of your Audubon bird prints.
Remember, many other factors contribute to value and replacement cost including rarity, condition, market level, region, market conditions, trends, etc. Before selling, donating or insuring your Audubon prints, call us for more information. In the meantime, we recommend you visit one of these websites for more information on the history and rarity of John James Audubon’s American bird prints.