Audubon: The Man, the Art, the Magic


I grew up going to a plantation nearby whose walls were graced with the most magnificent Audubons — the real thing, Audubons…the kind of Audubons that hang behind glass in the rare prints auctions at Sothebys…


And I had no idea how amazing they were. Until I reached my mid 20s and decided I wanted one for my new apartment…yea, right.

There’s such a great story behind Audubon, the man and his art, that we asked our meticulous researcher and contributer, EB Gunn to write an article that would inform us on a number of Audubon fronts. As always, he didn’t let us down.


 Audubon Prints           By EB Gunn

John James Audubon’s monumental Birds of America contains 435 life-sized prints of 497 species of birds that Audubon encountered in his travels through the  frontier areas, towns and seashores of America. These illustrations are the standard by which all drawings of birds before and since are judged.

There are millions of prints and reprints of Audubon’s work in existence today. Some are quite valuable and hang in the White House, museums, embassies, and in palaces across the globe. Audubons are a staple in plantation houses in the South. A discerning eye, especially when aided by a magnifying glass, can tell the valuable Audubons from the common ones in a moment. Yet the collectors’ favorites still occasionally show up in the humblest of places while the commonest of Audubon prints today grace some of the world’s fanciest walls.

Here’s what you need to know to get started.

Born in Haiti, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and plantation owner and his French mistress, Audubon (1785-1851) was raised largely by his father’s wife in Nantes, France. The artist’s natural mother died when Audubon was an infant. When he was barely out of adolescence Audubon slipped out of France to America in 1803 on a false passport to avoid conscription into the French Army which was in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. Settling briefly as a young man on family land near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania where he spent his days hunting, fishing, trapping and drawing his surroundings, the tireless ornithologist began there his methodical study of American birds.
Inline image 1


In Pennsylvania he dabbled in taxidermy, started a museum of birds, and conceived the first bird banding experiment known to have been conducted in America, a study the results of which convinced him that Eastern Phoebes, a flycatcher, were migratory but that they returned annually to familiar summer quarters. Early on he also developed his breakthrough modeling process of dropping with light shot the birds he wished to sketch and then with strings and wires arranging them in their characteristic hunting or feeding positions. Previous to Audubon ornithological illustrators had depicted birds only in perching or flying poses.


Inline image 1

A short time in Pennsylvania was enough for the adventuring Audubon who then embarked on his explorations throughout the eastern United States living off the land and painting. A Johnny Appleseed figure of sorts, with a wife teaching school in Natchez, Mississippi and raising their two children, it is said he mixed with Shawnee and Osage hunters, privateers, fishermen, plantation owners, pioneers, trappers and even the great frontiersman Daniel Boone.
While Audubon worked in many mediums, doing commissions along the way in charcoal and oils for example, the Birds of America prints were derived exclusively from watercolors, although the artist sometimes supplemented his watercolors with chalk, pastel crayons, gouache, pencil, pen and ink and other coloring tools he happened to have at hand. The first prints of these images were made using a two-step process of producing copper tint etchings to which color was added by hand using watercolors. Over the 12 years it took to print the collection’s first edition (1826-1838) over 50 colorists of varying ability worked on the project.

Inline image 2


Birds of America’s first edition, known as the Havell Edition after the London engraver, Robert Havell, Jr. who oversaw its completion, is thought to have been comprised of fewer than 200 complete sets. Two of these have sold at auction in the past few years. A complete set brought $7.9M at Christie’s in New York in 2012, and a similar set brought $11.5M at Sotheby’s in London in 2010. While not precisely books because they were not originally bound, these are among the highest prices ever paid anywhere for books.  The first sets of prints were originally produced as book pages, but not bound so as to avoid a British law in effect at the time that required book publishers to donate copies of their books to various British libraries. Hence the Havell Edition is sometimes called the Folio Edition because it was sold not as a bound book but as pages stacked in order in a metal folio. An authentic Havell Edition page will be in the original “Double-Elephant” size (26.5″X39.5″) and can be recognized by holding it to a light and discerning a watermark that reads “Whatman Turkey Mill” or “J.Whatman” after the original paper-maker. A printer credit typically appears in the bottom right of the print below the etched and colored area.  For Havells it will read either “Robert Havell” or “W.H.Lizars.” The value of individual uncut Havell Edition prints varies widely at auction, bringing everywhere from $20,000 to $1,500 recently, depending upon the subject and its condition.


Inline image 3

Audubon, like Benjamin Franklin and other Americans before him, was somewhat of a sensation in Europe during his 1826-1829 tour to solicit subscriptions with the Europeans enthusiastically embracing his backwoods/buckskin image. John Syme painted the naturalist in backwoods clothes and Audubon’s marketers made sure to display the portrait outside his European shows.  Syme’s portrait of Audubon now hangs in The White House. King George IV, Charles X of France, Queen Adelaide of Britain and other European notables took subscriptions for Havell Editions at the time.
Following the success of the Havell Edition, Audubon returned to the U.S. and visited with the Philadelphia engraver J.T.Bowen. Together they conceived an edition of Audubon’s prints that would be much smaller and more affordable. In some cases Audubon made new images for this smaller set, the Royal Octavo Edition. These images measure approximately 6.5″X10.5″. They were etched on an unusual paper that is thick like cardstock and the etchings were then hand-colored with watercolors. These prints typically show binding marks because originally they were sold as books. Each image in the set, of which there are 500, has a plate number recorded in Arabic numerals in the upper right corner. Royal Octavo first edition prints typically sell in the hundreds of dollars at auction with the occasional sale for a particularly popular print, like the Carolina wren for example, breaking the thousand dollar mark. The first edition, published 1840-1844, numbered 1,198 copies. Six more editions of Octavos were issued until 1877.
In 1858 another edition of Audubon’s Birds of America featuring the illustrations in their earlier “Double-Elephant” life-sized proportions was produced under the direction of Audubon’s son, John Woodhouse Audubon.  These prints are known as the “Bien Edition” after Julius Bien the chromolithographer who made the prints. Because the production of the Bien edition was interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War only 15 sets of the 44 set series were completed, making the Bien Edition very valuable today. For example, a single yellow crowned heron print from the Bien edition brought $4,887.50 at Cowen’s Auction in October, 2005, and an excellent example of Audubon’s ruffled grouse from the same edition brought $5,175 at Cowen’s in October, 2007. Authentic Bien Edition prints can be identified because they are are life-sized and many credit “J.Bien” in the bottom right hand corner. However some Bien Edition prints have been cut for framing which substantially reduces its value and on the left side half removes the printer credit. The paper carries no watermark.
Inline image 4
One later edition, the “Amsterdam Edition” produced in the 1970’s using a photolithography process, also attracts collectors. Amsterdam edition pieces bear a “G Schut and Zonen (JR) (OT) Audubon” watermark, and the paper is of the original Havell (26.5″X39.5″) size. Some of the more popular images from this Edition have sold for over $500, but most sell in the $75-$125 range.
All other Audubon prints, of which there are millions, have been reproduced by one or another photographic process. These (including the Amsterdams) can be readily recognized with a magnifying glass or jeweler’s loop. Photographic images show up as a series of dots when they are magnified, while the earlier hand-colored etchings are easily identified under close inspection by brushstrokes and color washes that may overlap or just miss one another.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s Audubons from Birds of America enjoyed a period of great popularity. In those decades it was a vogue for insurance companies and banks, print shops and non-profits to print up copies of Audubons on standard-sized (8″X10″ & 16″X20″) sheets and either give them away to their customers or sell them cheap.  Millions of copies were made this way and while these retain some value ( $10-$75), they are presently of no interest to collectors.