Tips of the Trade
Chris Lane shows host Dan Elias a few Audubon originals.
The heron is a desirable Audubon bird.
This is a small and original Audubon octavo print.
A watermark can help identify an Audubon original.
Mediium-sized Audubons are always reproductions.
John James Audubon: the name of the ornithologist, naturalist and artist conjures up thoughts of some of the finest prints in American history. "Audubon prints are about as large as it was possible to make prints, which gives them an incredible presence," says Chris Lane, co-owner of the Philadelphia Print Shop. "And the birds and animals are beautifully rendered and crafted. The size, the quality, there's just nothing like them." This, along with Audubon's insistence of depicting birds in natural poses has left collectors with some of the most desirable prints ever made.
An expert offers some valuable tips for collecting the stunning wildlife prints of John James Audubon. And to the serious collector he says remember: Reproductions are for the birds
The question is: how do potential Audubon collectors tell the difference between Audubon originals and reproductions? We asked Chris, and he provided a birds-eye view of the real-and copied-Audubon print.
Originals vs. Reproductions
With historical prints, such as Audubon's, the term "original" refers to prints made by hand rather than mechanically. That means that the process, whether lithography, etching or engraving, for example, is done by a skilled craftsman and is usually supervised by the artist or the artist's family.
Reproductions are prints made with some kind of mechanical process, usually photographic, to make a copy of the original image. A "restrike," a second kind of reproduction, is made when the original plates are used to make additional prints, usually after the artist has died. Restrikes are considerably more rare and expensive than photomechanical reproductions, although they are worth significantly less than original prints.
Audubon Originals: Large or Small
Chris notes that experts who have viewed hundreds of Audubon prints can spot the difference between originals and photomechanical reproductions. Chris adds that even beginners can learn to distinguish the two if they use a few simple guidelines. Original Audubons come in only two sizes, Chris notes, "the really small and the really big."
Audubon's extra-large prints, called "double elephant folios," are among the largest prints ever made. Audubon used this size because he wanted to draw the larger North American birds, such as the blue heron, life-size. These were sold by subscription, often five at a time, to buyers who wanted the over-sized prints. Audubon also produced far smaller prints in the octavo size, which are one-eighth the size of a full sheet of paper.
"I think of these small sizes as the paperback versions," Chris says. "Artists did these so they could make a little more money. These prints were also far more affordable to buyers." The point is this: If you find Audubon images of the in-between size-the medium size of most reproductions, including posters-you can bet that's exactly what you have: a reproduction.
Signed by the Makers
However, not all the very large and small Audubon prints are originals. Original double elephant folios, the first-edition prints, were hand-colored aquatints produced by Robert Havel. The papermaker was J. Whatman. "If Whatman's watermark is on the paper, you can be certain you have an original," Chris says. The other large original Audubons, released in a second edition by Audubon's family after his death, were chromolithographs made by Julius Bien, and bear his name.
J.T. Bowen made the first edition octavo originals and they also carry his name. "If J.T. Bowen's name appears on a print, there's a very good chance it is an original," Chris explains.
First editions of the very large birds sell for approximately $1,000 to $100,000, Chris says. The second editions of these elephant folio prints sell in the $400 to $15,000 range. The far smaller first edition octavos usually sell for between $100 to $1,000, with later editions selling for about half those prices. With all Audubon prints, the prices rise with the larger, more sought-after birds, such as the turkeys, herons, and swans.
Chris always suggests collectors stay away from reproductions, even those made in limited supplies. The reason? "With any kind of reproduction, someone can always make another reproduction just as good," Chris says. "Someone else can make something just like you have."
A new supply of Audubon reproductions will inevitably deflate the value of your earlier reproductions. Only a handful of reproductions of the large-sized Audubon prints have been done, but each time they are released the prices of the old reproductions "drop significantly," Chris explains.
The exception to this advice concerns the restrikes, which Chris says "do have a connection to the originals" and maintain their value. This is because restrikes are only rarely done and use the original plates, creating a connection to the original prints that collectors value. Chris' advice: "You should only buy reproductions for their decorative value."
Even with these tips, Chris says that with about 10 percent of Audubon prints "it gets a little more complicated." In other words, the beginning buyer could get fooled. Since Audubon prints were not a national treasure to those who first bought them, the owners would sometimes trim the larger originals, removing the margin that contained the watermark. The second edition Bien octavo prints were sometimes made with two images on one page and owners would sometimes cut them in half and frame them separately. In both these cases, the standard identifying marks have disappeared from the images.
To learn the more subtle distinctions between originals and reproductions, Chris recommends what he calls a "terrific guide" for beginners and experts called Identifying Audubon Bird Prints, by Robert Braun, published by the American Historical Print Collectors Society.
For more on Audubon Paintings & Drawings, see:
Identifying Audubon Bird Prints, by Robert Braun, 2001.
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Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.