Between 1827 and 1838, John James Audubon, brilliant artist and naturalist who dedicated much of his life to painting the birds and quadrupeds of North America, published in London, England, in 'his own style', a series of 435 large-sized, hand-colored etchings with aquatints in a folio entitled The Birds of America. These were reproduced primarily by Robert Havell and Sons from Audubon's watercolor paintings and often under the direct supervision of Audubon himself. Since he portrayed each bird life size, the larger birds often had to be drawn in feeding positions to fit on the largest copper engraving plates then available, approximately 27 x 39 inches. The largest bird was the wild turkey, and the smallest was one of the minute hummingbirds. With the final publication of these prints, Audubon established his Birds of America as the definitive portrayal of American birds in realistic settings. These antique original prints, now more than 180 years old, are known in the print trade as the Audubon-Havell double elephant folio edition because each was printed on giant "double elephant" folio sheets of 100% cotton rag watermarked Whatman paper.
Audubon chose Whatman paper for his originals. Manufactured in Kent, England, this was the finest paper available. James Whatman developed wove paper and continued manufacturing it until his death in 1759. His son, James, then ran the business, but sold it to Thomas Hollingsworth in 1792. The Hollingsworth family continued making this paper until 1976. This double elephant paper measures about 29 x 39 inches and has a watermark on the back - J WHATMAN - followed by the year of manufacture. Some sheets additionally have TURKEY MILL countermarked into the paper. This is thought to refer to the mills original purpose, grinding Turkey wheat from India. George Washington signed State documents on Whatman paper, Napoleon wrote his will on Whatman paper while on the Island of St. Helena, and Queen Victoria used Whatman paper for her personal stationary.
"Having studied drawing for a short while in my youth under good masters, I felt a great desire to make choice of a style more particularly adapted to the imitation of feathers than the drawings in water colours that I had been in the habit of seeing, and moreover, to complete a collection not only valuable to the scientific class, but pleasing to every person, by adopting a different course of representation from the mere profile-like cut figures, given usually in works of that kind." John James Audubon
Somewhat more than 200 complete sets were sold. The exact number was not accurately recorded, but most were bound in four large volumes for the subscribers. It is estimated that there are about 130 of the complete bound sets of these original prints still in existence. There are also known to be at least three unbound, flat sheet sets, one of which is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In recent years a number of complete volumes have been cut apart and auctioned off as individual prints at ever-increasing prices. The American White Pelican, the Snowy Owl, and the Wild Turkey can sell for upwards of $150,000 each if in good condition. Recently, a complete set brought over $11,000,000 at auction.
Below is Audubon's unfinished watercolor study of the Blue Crane. Click the image to see the final product.
Drama in natural settings. That is the appeal of Audubon's life-size prints.
Below: The Long-billed Curlew with recognizable civilization, Charleston's 1832 harbor. Some structures still exist.
Our double elephant Long-billed Curlew is reproduced by permission of a prominent Charleston SC family, in whose home the original was displayed for generations. The background is Charleston harbor with Castle Pinckney at left. This outstanding print is one of only a few that Audubon composed with recognizable civilization in the background.
Flyer advertising Bowen's Philadelphia studio.
Quadruped Test Sheets from the Lord-Hopkins Collection
Discovered in 1923 by Mary A. Guerrero Lord who was visiting her mother Henrietta Potter James, owner of the house on the corner of South 9th Street in Philadelphia and what is now known as Bonaparte Ct. Her home was earlier rented by Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s older brother and Audubon’s friend. These Imperial prints were bundled and abandoned in a back alley near the second studio that Bowen used in the 1800’s when producing Audubon’s birds and quadrupeds. They were together with pattern prints from the Octavo series. We cannot definitively say why they were purposely kept for some time by Bowen, and perhaps forgotten after his death. We will provide a Certificate of Authenticity noting that they are part of the Lord-Hopkins collection - the last known prints to come from Bowen’s studio. These prints are part of American printmaking history. The condition, ranging from poor to fair, is not of prime concern, due to their historical value. Many are uncolored, allowing one to see the printmaking process. We suggest collectors frame them to archival standards. In some cases, we have the matching original, colored, in our Imperial gallery.
Below is a test sheet from Bowen's Philadelphia studio for The Mink.
What is an Audubon print?
An Audubon print is either an original produced by Audubon and/or his family during the nineteenth century or any of the later reproductions. Audubon produced prints on paper, as did those who produced reproductions. They are all Audubon prints, a rather generic term. Thus, it is best to differentiate by simply terming the originals as original Audubon prints. We advise caution as several Audubon print websites do not clearly distinguish between nineteenth century originals and their own reproductions, sometimes terming their reproductions as Havells (Audubon's engraver) instead of reproductions of Havells. You will also often see common reproductions on sites such as eBay presented as originals. Further, Audubon prints advertised as vintage are usually reproductions of little or no value.
Below: The watermark is usually visible when holding the paper up to a source of light and viewing the back of the paper.
Below is an early engraving of Robert Havell's London shop. Notice the Audubon prints displayed on the viewing tables and the walls.
What is the value of an Audubon print?
All original Audubon prints have value. However, there is no price list since each print differs from the other regarding condition and provenance. Guidance can be given based on auction and private sales. All prices listed for originals on the Internet or bricks and mortar stores should be considered asking prices. A word of caution - the presence of script at the bottom of the print saying that it was drawn from nature by Audubon, or engraved by Havell or Bowen, does not indicate originality, as reproductions also reproduce such script. The smallest of Audubon originals, the octavo birds and mammals can have a value of less than one hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, depending on the popularity of the image and condition of the print. Imperial mammals which measure about 21 x 28 inches are generally valued from about five hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, again depending upon the popularity of the image and condition of the print. Audubon Havells rarely sell for less than one thousand dollars for smaller images but can sell for upwards of one hundred and fifty thousand for the larger images, again depending upon the popularity of the image and the condition of the prints.