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Collecting Audubon Prints

By Lisa Thomas

A sampling of Audubon prints from the Amsterdam Edition to be offered in our February 21, 2014 auction.
A sampling of Audubon prints from the Amsterdam Edition to be offered in our February 21, 2014 auction.

John James Audubon circa 1845, courtesy of Smithsonian Institute
John James Audubon circa 1845, courtesy of Smithsonian Institute

Painter and naturalist John James Audubon (1785 – 1851) created one of the most comprehensive and detailed catalogues of the birds of the United States, painting every species of bird he could find between 1820 and 1823.

Audubon’s plan was to have each image engraved to create a complete folio, but after finding no financial backing for his project in America, Audubon set sail for England in 1826 where he exhibited his watercolors in Liverpool and Manchester.  He eventually landed in Edinburgh where he met the engraver William H. Lizars.

Lizars engraved the first ten or so plates of the collection but was unable to continue, so in 1827 Audubon hired the noted London engraver Robert Havell and his son, Robert Havell Jr. to oversee the project. The resulting engravings with hand-coloring from his iconic Birds of America have been avidly collected since they were first published in a series between 1827 and 1838. Audubon funded the costly printing of the Birds of America by selling them as a subscription to wealthy patrons he met while lecturing on ornithology in Britain and Paris. In the end, 435 plates were printed and issued loose, unbound to the subscribers in 87 sets of 5 images each.

John James Audubon's Bird's of America
John James Audubon’s Bird’s of America

After the folio was completed, Audubon decided to issue a more affordable collection of the images, hiring Philadelphia lithographer J.T. Bowen to create a smaller edition of lithographs called the Royal Octavo edition. As with the folio edition, the octavo edition was issued as a subscription in seven volumes, the last being issued in 1844.

In 1858, the Bien Edition was printed using the chromolithography technique as a re-issue of the full-size plates. This publication was published under the supervision of Audubon’s son, John Woodhouse Audubon. The edition was never finished and only fifteen of the anticipated forty-four parts were issued. This edition only has 105 of the original plates and fewer than one hundred subscriptions were sold, making this the rarest of the early editions.

The Birds of America became so popular with collectors, dealers and decorators, that in 1971, another edition was printed, called the Amsterdam Edition. This modern edition is considered reproductive, as none of the Audubon family had a part in its creation. However, it contains all 435 of the original Audubon plates and made it possible for many more decorative print enthusiasts to own an image of one of Audubon’s beautiful birds.

Collectors new to Audubon prints are sometimes confused by the different editions and printing techniques, both of which, along with the type of bird depicted, affect value and desirability. The images from Birds of America are not subject to copyright restrictions and have been reproduced on all manner of material using many different techniques. Along with the printing technique used, the type of paper and the size of the print will help to identify which Audubon print you are looking at. In general, the large, colorful birds tend to fetch the highest prices (American Flamingo, Snowy Egret, Whistling Swan are a few examples); but there are 435 plates to choose from and many of the smaller, lesser-known birds are just as lovely to look at.

Here is what to look for:

  • Havell Edition (also called Double Elephant Folio): created in 1827-1838, paper size 39 ½ x 26 ½”, paper watermark J Whatman or J Whatman Turkey Mill, engravings with hand-coloring.


  • Royal Octavo Edition: created in 1840-1844, paper size 10 ¾ x 6 ½”, no paper watermark, lithographs in colors.


  • Bien Edition: created in 1860, paper size 27 x 40”, no paper watermark, chromolithographs.


  • Amsterdam Edition: created in 1971-72, paper size 39 ½ x 26 ½”, paper watermark G. Schut & Zonen, offset lithographs in colors.


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