Buying Audubon Prints and Print Conditions

Reproduced by permission of the author - Ron Flynn

Buying Audubon Prints and Print Condition

by Ron Flynn

As with any other art object or collectible, condition is the most important factor when purchasing an original antique Audubon print. The one word terminology, like “excellent”, generally used to describe print condition is highly subjective. Perhaps, a listing of the individual flaws and damage existing on a particular print is the best way to evaluate print condition before you buy. I will offer a detailed discussion of print condition towards the end of this article. First, I will discuss the various sources where you can buy original antique Audubon prints.


There are scores of auction houses all over the Country that sell, from time to time, original antique Audubon prints. Christie’s and Sotheby’s are probably the best known. Other popular auction houses include: Treadway, Rago, Skinner, Doyle and Butterfield’s. There are, of course, local and regional auction houses that will be found in newspapers and yellow page listings, but not necessarily on the Internet. There are also auction-reporting services that individuals can subscribe to for tracking auction sales results.

The original bound volumes of Audubon’s prints, when up for sale, would be classified as rare or antiquarian books. When dis-bound prints, either singly or in multiple lots, are auctioned, they would be classified as art. The biggest auction houses will conduct auctions confined to specialized areas such as art. The medium and small auction houses will have regular sales of mixed items. This might include anything imaginable, but quite often you will find one or more original Audubon prints among the items up for bid.

The best way to buy at auction is to actually attend, and personally examine the items at the pre-auction showings. People will travel long distances to attend and bid at an auction if there is something there they really want. If you know a print dealer well, and he/she will be attending a particular auction, you can often make an arrangement for that dealer to examine an item and bid for you. That dealer will probably ask a commission/fee of an additional 10% above what the item sells for. If you trust that dealer and cannot attend, this is an excellent way to purchase an item you really want.

Finally, you can always place an auction bid over the phone, either in advance or at the time of the auction. Sometimes, auction houses will have provisions so you can place your bid on auction items over the Internet. One antique print dealer, Haley & Steele, regularly conducts their own antique print auctions from their website. REMEMBER, unless you attend and examine an auction item, you are bidding sight unseen, and buying “as is”. Unless you can prove fraud, you are stuck with what you bought, and cannot return it. There will be some description, and usually a picture, in the auction catalogue. If you cannot attend, auction houses will do their best to answer your questions about an item, and give you a description of condition. If there is enough time, many houses will send you photos of an item, or send you images via email. The amount of additional information/help you might expect, aside from the catalogue listing, would be in proportion to the perceived value of the item.

Before bidding and buying Audubon prints at auction, one should have a good understanding of print condition and the relative market value of what you are bidding on. The Price Guides in this book will give you that information. Many wonderful bargains can be found at the medium-smaller mixed auctions, with maybe only one Audubon in the entire auction. Prices for art objects at auction are affected by the economy and the whims of what’s in and what’s not, in the art world. However, it is always buyer beware!


Of the hundreds of large and small antique print dealers around the Country, most will operate their own gallery or store. A growing number of antique print dealers, with their own store, will also sell through their own Internet websites. Finally, there are a small but growing number of antique print dealers who do business solely on the Internet, and own no retail store. Owners of retail shops and galleries will have overhead expenses and this will be reflected in their prices.

The prices at most antique print dealers are somewhat negotiable. Prices for the same print vary widely around the Country. Not all of these price variations can be attributed to overhead. Some are due to regional demand; some to print condition, and some price variations come from the dealer’s knowledge, or lack thereof, of the market for his merchandise. You should be knowledgeable about market prices for the print you are considering buying. Don’t be afraid to ask for a 10%-15% discount, especially if you are buying more than one print. The dealer can only say no, and you can always walk out the door and buy elsewhere, especially if you know the market and have checked around for availability. As you look through a dealer’s inventory, notice the differences in condition of prints and try and determine if the dealer has taken condition into account when he priced his prints. Some dealers use their own price list, and price all plate #s of the same edition at the same price, regardless of condition. If the condition of a print does not match up to the asking price, ask for a price reduction based on condition, provided you like and can use the print as it is.

The main advantage to going to an antique print dealer’s gallery is that you can see and examine the items you are considering buying. If you have an antique print dealer near you, that carries a good selection at reasonable retail prices, there is something to be said for doing business there. Over time you can develop a rapport and business relationship with this dealer. The dealer will earn your trust and you will appreciate his experience and advice. This dealer would go to extra efforts to locate a particular print you wanted, that he did not have in inventory. A similar business relationship with a dealer can be established through a dealer’s Internet website. If you have good credit, most dealers will send you Audubon prints on approval, or with some type of no questions asked money back return policy. If this is not the way you prefer to collect, you can simply shop around for the best particular print at the best price, either in person, by phone or over the Internet.

Antique print dealers who are selling from Internet websites, whether they have a store or not, MUST be extremely accommodating to Internet buyers, in order to earn their business. You can deal with an Internet print dealer via email, the phone or both. Internet antique print dealers should provide you with no nonsense print condition reports, and not just the word EXCELLENT. They should list all flaws and damage that is on a print you are considering. They should be willing to email you additional or close-up scans of the print you are considering. They MUST have a full refund return policy if you are not satisfied with what you receive (excluding shipping charges). Use your credit card when you purchase, and don’t accept a return policy that only gives you a store credit.


There are other Internet auction sites besides eBay. However, when I have visited them and searched for Audubon, I mostly got no hits or maybe some cheap posters. I think that eBay is the only reliable Internet auction source for original Audubon prints.

eBay should be thought of as sort of a “wholesale” auction outlet. eBay is an open auction marketplace. However, you do not get to see, first hand, the merchandise you are bidding on and buying. Therefore, you must heavily rely on the low-resolution pictures and the description of condition by the seller.


There are perhaps 10-12 regular sellers on eBay who list Audubon Amsterdam and 1st and 2nd octavo edition bird and quad prints for sale. Some regularly list 5-10 or more prints each week. Others list prints less often, or in smaller numbers. Some sellers are well known large antique print dealers, using their own names or an eBay ID. Others are smaller well-established professional rare book or print dealers, and have their own businesses. Finally, there are individuals, who are undoubtedly collectors, who list their Audubon prints at auction. In their auction listings, sellers may make it known who they are, and what experience they have. However, none of this information, by itself, is any guarantee that the auction pictures you see, and the descriptions of condition they give, are accurate. If you are the winning bidder, there is no guarantee that the print you receive is the same one pictured and described in the auction listing.

The feedback ratings for eBay sellers are helpful. However, I believe that a large percentage of Audubon print buyers on eBay are not knowledgeable about market value and the importance of condition in buying antique prints. The more detailed the seller’s description of condition, the better. Don’t rely on the auction pictures except to note missing corners and other paper loss, and to check the position of the image on the sheet (to determine if the sheet has been trimmed and to make sure there is enough margin for matting). Only the most obvious flaws and damage show up on those low-resolution Internet pictures. Some sellers give very detailed and accurate descriptions of the prints they are selling, and I have a high confidence in bidding on their auctions. However, other sellers list every one of their prints as being in “excellent” condition, without any regard or mention of a fox mark or finger smudge or other flaw.

I’d be very cautious of sellers who describe their prints as “excellent”, “super shape”, “fine condition” or similar terms, but do not include a real condition report. If you are interested in an item that is described this way, use eBay’s “ask seller a question” feature to get a condition report from the seller. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, don’t bid on auctions by that seller. Similarly, I don’t like descriptions that say a print is in EXCELLENT condition, except for this flaw, that flaw, and another flaw. While this may be an accurate description of the print’s condition, the print is obviously NOT in EXCELLENT condition if it has all those flaws. There is one regular eBay seller who lists all of his Audubon octavo bird and quad print auctions as being “2nd State”. He never reveals the edition or year the prints were published. If you read my article Print States Versus Editions, at , you will learn how meaningless “2nd State” is. This seller is a professional and knows better. I believe the only reason for using the “2nd State” description is to confuse and mislead buyers. Another seller admitted to me over the phone that he uses stock pictures (rather than an actual scan of the print you are bidding on). He said that he doesn’t have time to photograph or scan the prints he is selling. So, in his case, what you see is not what you get.

Some sellers have a strong following on eBay. It seems that their auctions bring higher prices than an auction for the same print by another seller. I believe the major reason for this is confidence in the seller, more than differences in the actual condition of the same print. These few professional antique print dealers (who sell more than just Audubon prints), work very hard to provide an accurately described product, and super communications and service to their buyers. Their efforts pay off in higher prices and an excellent reputation and following.

Some eBay sellers guarantee the originality of the Audubon prints they list. This guarantee is meaningless unless backed up with a money back refund policy. The amount of money you have to bid to win an original Audubon print on eBay is large enough that you don’t want to risk losing that money to fraudulent sellers. Unless you know a seller or are confident with the seller’s reputation, I would avoid sending money orders or personal checks. Use a credit card or PayPal to purchase your auction winnings. If something goes wrong, you at least have the protection provided by Federal laws governing credit card use.

I would avoid buying matted or framed prints on eBay. Unless you can be certain that the work was done very recently, using the highest quality archival materials, you will probably wind up discarding the matting materials and having the work redone. Also, there is the potential that the matting is covering unseen flaws and damage, either pre-existing or actually caused by the use of older non-archival materials. When bidding on antique Audubon prints on eBay, be mindful of the print’s condition and general market value. Avoid getting into a bidding war with another buyer and running up the price above actual retail.


I don’t believe that one-word descriptions like “excellent” are all that useful, either in describing print condition, or in relying on a word or term in buying a print. Descriptive terms for print condition are always highly subjective, and are ALWAYS in the eyes of the seller. Sellers can describe a print as being in excellent condition no matter how many flaws it has. There are no standards for print condition terms. I believe a detailed condition report, listing all flaws and damage, plus an evaluation of strike and coloring, is the most useful and helpful information that a potential buyer of an antique print can have. Nevertheless, I recognize that people would like definitions that describe various print condition terminology, at least as a guide or beginning basis. Therefore, I offer here my totally subjective definitions for print condition terminology.

Whether antique Audubon prints have been carefully stored in their original bound volumes, or have been framed and hung for a period of time, virtually all will have flaws and damage from: viewing and handling, heat and light, humidity, pollutants in the atmosphere, and the very properties in the paper itself. The vast majority of prints sold today come from recently dis-bound original volumes. Yet, it seems all have at least a minor flaw or two.

Mint condition –

MINT condition means as close to the original condition of the print, when it was first issued, as is possible. The print would appear clean crisp and spectacular, and virtually free of flaws and damage. The colors would be bright and fresh looking. A print that has been cleaned and restored by a professional conservationist can certainly be described as being in MINT condition. Still, a tiny mark or flaw might remain. Call it a character mark, but it would be inconspicuous and not detract from the overall beauty of the print. WHEN YOU PAY FOR MINT CONDITION, BE CERTAIN YOU GET IT.

Excellent condition -

For a print to be described as EXCELLENT, the paper must be crisp and fresh, and the colors bright and vibrant. A print in EXCELLENT condition might have 1 or 2 very minor flaws outside the matted image area.

Very Good condition -

A print in VERY GOOD condition might show the slightest fading of colors, and the paper might have 1 or 2 minor handling creases along the margins, but still be a light off-white or creamy color. A print in VERY GOOD condition might have a few minor flaws outside the matted image area, but no damage.

Average or Good condition –

A print of AVERAGE/GOOD condition will definitely show a lightening or fading of colors and/or the text attributions will be lighter or faded. The paper will be well handled with a number of handling creases and/or the color of the paper will have started to darken from age or toning. The print might have 3-4 minor flaws, some of which could be in the matted image area, and/or the print might have minor damage like a missing corner, margin chip, or ¼” or less marginal tear. Overall, a print that has been well viewed and handled over the years, and was not stored under ideal conditions over that period.

Poor condition -

A print in POOR condition would be well used, with numerous handling creases to the point where the sheet is more limp than crisp, and/or there would undoubtedly be finger smudges along the margin. The colors and text attributions would definitely be light or faded, and/or the paper would be overall darker in color. The print would have numerous flaws, both outside and within the matted image area, and/or the print would have damage in the form of stains or paper losses. Paper losses would be multiple, and consist of missing corners or marginal chips and tears. I believe that any print that has been trimmed, or that is so positioned on the sheet that there is no room to properly mat it, must be classified as being in POOR condition.

Handling Creases –

A handling crease is not a sharp fold or crease in the paper. Rather, it is the softening or pliability in a sheet as a result of repeated handling and page turning while in a book. As long as they are not visible as finger smudges or stains, they are normal wear and tear. However, numerous handling creases can make a print somewhat limp and affect its condition. Handling creases would appear as very slight waviness or rippling in the margins, where pages would normally be handled for page turning. They can easily be seen by holding the print vertically, and viewing the reverse (verso) side. A lamp shown down the reverse side will reveal very slight bumps or waves in the paper. You can easily feel if a sheet is crisp and fresh, or more soft and pliable from excessive handling.

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