A Bien Reissue?

Reproduced by permission of the author - Ron Flynn

A Bien Edition Reissue?

By Ron Flynn

For many years, the question of whether there was a reissue of the Audubon Bien Edition has gone unanswered. No record or documentation of such has been found, and nothing definitive has been written on the subject. Yet, based solely on the appearance and quality of prints found in the marketplace today, dealers and authors have freely debated the subject from time to time. Perhaps as many say there was, as say there was not a reissue.

We know that production of the Bien Edition ceased in 1860, with only 105 sheets, containing 150 images, being issued. The failure of the Bien Edition resulted in a bankruptcy and near financial ruin for the Audubon family during the Civil War. Roe Lockwood & Co. of New York was the Audubon’s major business partner in the Bien project, and became the Audubon’s main creditor in the bankruptcy. They ultimately gained publishing rights to all the Bird and Quad Editions that the Audubons published in the United States, as well as possession of the original lithographic stones, and probably all remaining inventory of plates and letterpress. As a result, the Lockwoods published editions of the Octavo Birds and Quads and Imperial Folio Quads between 1865 and 1871. Isn’t it likely they also published a reissue of the Bien Edition during that period?

Alice Ford, in her 1964 book John James Audubon, claims that the Bien Edition lithographic stones were shipped to a New Orleans warehouse and subsequently destroyed by Union shelling during the Civil War. Ford cites no source or reference for this claim, and no other author or researcher has uncovered proof of Ford’s theory. However, known historical facts make Ford’s claim less believable. Well before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, it was well known in the North that a Civil War was inevitable, and preparations were already being made. It wouldn’t have made sense to ship the Bien stones into the Deep South for storage, when they could have been shipped further North if their safety was ever a concern. Secondly, all other Audubon lithographic stones, as well as the original Havell copperplates, were stored in the Philadelphia and New York areas, and no one has ever suggested that they were moved for safety during the Civil War. Finally, the Bien stones were Audubon assets and an integral part of the Audubon bankruptcy. A bankruptcy court simply would not have allowed the stones to be removed to New Orleans.

It seems much more plausible that the Bien stones remained in New York, and as a result of the bankruptcy, became the property of the Lockwood family. George Lockwood, in a c1877 letter, reported that all the Audubon stones were destroyed in the collapse of a Philadelphia storage warehouse. Though an inventory of destroyed stones was not provided, no further account of the fate of Audubon lithographic stones has been discovered or published. If you discount Ford, it is certainly possible that the Lockwood family, or another printer, attempted a Bien reissue using the original stones.

It has been well documented that the Boston firm of Estes and Lauriat received a large quantity of remaining Bien prints, after the collapse of the project, and sold them until all were gone c1889. Whether E. & L. acquired the prints directly from the bankruptcy court, or from the Lockwoods, and whether the Lockwoods also sold some prints for a period of time, doesn’t seem important. The loose prints were sold individually or as complete sets, and eventually were distributed around the Country to be bought and resold. I have documentation of the purchase of a complete (unbound) Bien Edition set by the Stockton County Public Library, Stockton, CA, from the San Francisco firm of H.H. Moore, in 1891, for the sum of $125.00. This set, which the Library still owns, could easily have been one of the remaining sets sold after the Audubon bankruptcy. Yet, it is in very good condition today, with excellent coloring, minimal color registration problems, and only a few sheets showing slight marginal tears.

The speculation about a Bien reissue centers on a fairly significant number of Bien prints, of noticeably inferior quality, in the marketplace. These prints are described as having very poor or off coloring, and poor color registration. I have heard nothing of any differences in printed nomenclature or credits, or differences in paper, that would distinguish the suspected reissues from original Bien prints. Numerous dealers have encountered Bien prints with missing credits, but the general quality of coloring and color registration was no different than prints found in the market with full credits. I suspect that the prints found without full credits were either early full color proofs or initial black ink proofs that were later chromolithographed. I have recently had the opportunity to thoroughly examine an original bound Bien volume. I have also examined a half sheet Bien print that I assume would, from its condition, qualify as a suspected reissue print. A fellow collector bought a Bien Part 6-7, Plate 48, Barn Swallow for $100 from a Chicago area dealer, with the idea of having it re-colored. The print would be described as poor condition, and really looked dreadful.

The quality of Bien prints does vary from print to print in the areas of color registration, and accuracy or quality of coloring. Generally, most Bien prints are of very good quality, but do not equal the printing and hand coloring quality of a Havell print. However, as to color registration problems on the above Barn Swallow print, I found that it was no worse than what I noted on a few prints in the original Bien volume that I examined. Also in the original Bien volume I examined, I noted some prints where the colors seemed off or not just right. They appeared either too dull or too garish or simply uncomplimentary to the print as a whole.

I’ve recently talked to several dealers who specialize more in 19th Century chromolithographs, rather than Audubon prints, and they believe that exposure to light over time can not only fade the colors of a chromolithograph, but actually change the colors of the original inks used to produce the antique chromolithographs.

While it is still possible that there was an attempt at, or an actual small Bien Edition reissue, based on the above information, I believe that there was no Bien reissue. I suspect, without any definitive proof, that as the Bien Edition prints were distributed, the best quality prints were issued to favored or special customers. My only reason or suspicion for this is that the original Bien Edition volume owned by the Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas, is described as being flawless and in excellent condition, without color registration or color quality problems. The Bien Edition volume owned by the Stark Museum is the original volume owned by John Bachman. If anyone were to receive a “perfect” Bien Edition, it would have been John Bachman. I, therefore, believe that the supposed Bien reissue prints are either/or original Bien Edition prints that did not measure up in quality and were never issued, but were not destroyed and became part of the bankruptcy proceeds, or were original Bien Edition prints, that have been loose and not been in bound volumes for many years, and were exposed to light so that the color quality has changed or degraded to their present condition as they are available in the marketplace.

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1 comment
  • I own an Audubon plate #288 Chromolith J. Bien fish hawk or osprey print. your article gives me hope that it is an original if there were not any reissues of the Bien editions.

    joan scheuren on

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