With the advent of The Audubon Society and the 20th Century's interest in the environment Audubon's name is known throughout the world and his images of birds can be found everywhere, the rarest being his one of a kind watercolors, paintings, and drawings. These original works and his highly valuable hand colored ( aquatint) engravings and sets of books illustrated with color lithographs bring top prices at auction houses and fine art dealers. The first Audubon prints and books were produced in very small quantities by modern standards and have become quite scarce. The public demand for his work has resulted in a number of high quality limited edition reproductions and facsimiles, some of which vary greatly in quality and value. But at what ever level they exist his works have an ever expanding collector base.
In addition to the staggering number of mass produced bird print reproductions, there is an entire universe of "collectibles" and novelty items bearing his iconic images that can be found. These include (but are by no means limited to) everything from commemorative postage stamps from Barbuda and Chad to Audubon sets of dinnerware and china, Audubon Society electric clocks and to the beautiful Audubon Japan pattern Tiffany & Company's silverware designed by E.C. Moore.
The immediate difficulty one encounters when valuing anything, whether it is a one of a kind work of art or a mass produced item, is the task of correctly identifying exactly what it is that you are dealing with. This especially important when appraising the numerous editions of John James Audubon prints that were created by his collaboration with his printers and publishers during his lifetime, as well as identifying and distinguishing the differences in the sea of limited edition and mass produced reproductions that vary greatly in quality and value. This is where Bill Steiner's book "Audubon Art Prints: A Collectors Guide to Every Edition" proves to be a great resource and guide and I recommend that anyone truly seeking a greater understanding of Audubon's art obtain a copy.
I won't venture into too much detail here but I think it might be a good idea to briefly share some of the basic information that Joel Oppenheimer covered in his guest lecture about Collecting Audubon the night before the museum's Audubon Appraisal Day event.
The first thing to know is that that original lifetime Audubon prints were created in only two sizes. Unless an original sheet has been divided they should be either Double Elephant size or Royal Octavo sizer. Anything else is a later printing based on the originals.
The largest Audubon authentic prints are Double Elephant Folio size and measure 39.5" x 26.25"
William Lizars Double Elephant Folio sized hand colored copper plate engravings (He printed the first twelve of the four hundred and thirty five birds)
Robert Havell Jr. Double Elephant Folio sized hand colored copper plate engravings on 100 % cotton rag watermarked J. Whatman paper ( 1826 - 1837) and Whatman Turkey Mill paper (1826-1837)
The Julius Bien Double Elephant Folio sized prints were made later from 1858 to 1860 and did not represent all 435 birds, The prints were not hand colored aquatint engravings. They were chromolithographs and were printed on acidic wood fiber based paper and do not bear any watermarks. They do have the last name of the master printer Bien printed at the bottom right recto.
It is important to note that although the Double Elephant Folio sized engravings of The Birds of America made his reputation and are the most prized of all Audubon's prints they were very expensive to produce and initially sold over the course of several years by subscription at premium prices. His subscribers would later have the all of the individual aquatints custom bound into five massive volumes weighing fifty pounds each. There were less than 200 completed sets made. The record auction price for a complete four volume first edition Birds of America stands at $11,500,000.00 at Sotheby's London sale in December of 2010 and more recently one sold for $9,650,000.00 at Christie's New York on June 14, 2018.
It was the publication of his less expensive seven volume sets of Royal Octavo sized (10.5" high by 6.25" wide) " Birds of America" with their color lithographs printed by J. Bowen & Company of Philadelphia that was the financial windfall and made John James Audubon's fortune.
Next time I promise to describe the museum's Audubon Appraisal Day with Joel Oppenheimer .......