Audubon Prints - Collecting the Art of Audubon


Some of the most common questions I receive as a dealer of Audubon Prints are… “You really just sell bird prints?” “I see prints like this all the time in the stores, what makes these so special?” “Why should I pay $200 for a print that I see on art .com for $39?”  Rather fair questions, and sometimes I do cringe, but to be honest I have to admit they shouldn’t surprise me in the least.  I’ve been in and around the print dealing for some time now and I guess that I often take a couple of things I know about it fore granted.  I shouldn’t assume that everyone searching the net for Audubon Prints today has been a collector.  They may not know or care about the differences in quality or the rarity of some of these prints.  All they may know is that John James Audubon (1785 – 1851) was a nineteenth century artist known for images of birds.  OK, maybe not the nineteenth century part either. So, for this little article, for that audience unfamiliar with Audubon and print collecting, yet open to informing themselves with a little general knowledge, I will lay out a simple introduction to the world of Audubon Prints.  Call it a primer.  My goal is not to over saturate the conversation with information and factoids, but rather to create a general framework for which to think about the different facets of Audubon’s artwork and his prints, whether for serious collecting or just fulfilling your own decorative needs.

In the near future I will attempt to introduce the various editions offered at Audubon Collector and explain in more detail what makes them both unique and collectible.

For those unfamiliar with the art of John James Audubon we’ll start by laying out some basic facts about the artist.  Audubon was born in the later eighteenth century in a French colony on the tropic island of Hispaniola now better known as Haiti.  Audubon’s artistic career started somewhat later in his life, his artistic creations active in the early nineteenth century after he had immigrated to the United States.  He had tried a variety of career paths, which to varying degrees did not secure him the lifestyle suitable to his needs.  It wasn’t until the  years after starting a family, a few failed business start-ups and several moves in the American Midwest that he chose to put his artistic talents boldly to the forefront of his endeavors.  Audubon set out to publish a encyclopedic study that would illustrate all the Birds of America.  The publication would also include text about the birds various behaviors and habitats. His goal was quite an ambitious project at an adventitious time in western culture.  At that time western society was in the throws of the industrial revolution, feeding this societal change were great advances in science and technology.   This time also saw the rise of an upper middle class or Bourgeoisie that had more expendable income, in Europe as well as in America.  The works by Audubon are generally associated with birds, however few may know that in addition to bird subjects he also created a series of prints dedicated to mammals.  Audubon’s first publication know as the “Birds of America” was well received and added great renown for Audubon not only in the United States but also in Europe.  His illustrations of the birds of the American wilderness was enthusiastically received in Europe where in the minds of the people America still represented the unexplored frontier and through his illustrations Audubon’s notoriety grew.

Audubon Amsterdam Print for sale Pl 71 Winter Hawk, full sheet
Audubon Amsterdam Print for sale Pl 71 Winter Hawk, full sheet

Today, the “Birds of America” publication with its 435 illustrations is among the most sought books in print.  In fact, a complete original 4-volume set sold in 2010 for a record price of 11.5 million dollars.  The highest amount paid for a printed publication at that time.  Its popularity is also evident in the number of reproductions of his artwork that have been made since their initial publication over 170 years ago.  Based on other accounts that I have come across, authority’s on the subject have stated that they believe that the number of Audubon print reproductions are somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 million copies worldwide.  30 million is a large number, but out of this large group I like to separate the prints into three basic sub-groups. The first group includes the original Havell Edition prints and the original first edition Royal Octavo sets.  Basically, this first group are the prints produced and supervised by Audubon during his lifetime.  The second group consist of the later Royal Octavo edition sets and a couple of more recent “Quality” crafted reproductions and facsimiles.  These quality prints seek to master the print processes chosen by their printmaker while also seeking to faithfully recapture the essence and experience of owning an original Havell Edition Audubon Print.  The 3rdand last grouping are prints that reproduce the artwork of Audubon primarily for the purpose of decoration.  Each of these groups has a marketable purpose and serve the various needs of their owners. Next I will attempt to delve slightly deeper into the characteristics of these three groupings.

 First Grouping

The first grouping is defined by those prints which were produced under the guidance and supervision of their artistic creator, the man himself, John James Audubon.  Most important of this first group is Audubon’s first publication, the celebrated “Birds of America”.  Originally, this publication was sold to the public in installments by subscription from 1827 through 1838.  Subscribers would periodically receive packets of illustrations as they were produced, not full editions.  It is generally acknowledged that there are only about 150 complete sets of this original edition.  Other sets are incomplete due to cancellations by the subscriber (@ 100 incomplete sets) and many of them have been broken up and sold on the market individually.  For the work, Audubon enlisted the engraving services of Robert Havell Jr. of London to translate his drawings into prints.  Production of the prints were partialy manual as the color of all these prints were added afterwards by hand after printing by a team of watercolor artist also under the employ of Havell.  In all, 435 illustrations were originally produced.  They are rather large by today’s standards, measuring approximately 28” by 39” and are sometimes referred to by their printer’s term for their size as the “Double Elephant Folios” (DEF’s). Audubon’s goal in choosing this large size was to facilitate his ability to render the birds in the most detailed realism (or beauty, your choice) ever produced at that time.  One very important characteristic of this publication (especially to those interested in collecting Audubon Prints) is that he rendered his subjects to scale 1:1 therefore life-sized. So, the viewer, though they may be unfamiliar with the species could see the bird as if it were in front of him.

Audubon Havell Edition Plate 431 American Flamingo, full sheet view
In Plate 431 American Flamingo, Audubon had to devise a pose to fit the subject on the paper in order to keep the subject life-sized.

This is most evident when viewing the illustrations for the larger birds where Audubon would pose the subjects in seemingly un-natural poses in order to fit them on the sheet.  This contortion can readily be understood for example when viewing Plate 431 “American Flamingo”, subjectively one of his most celebrated works.  The flamingo is shown head and neck down feeling somewhat boxed in by the restrictions of the paper size.  For the collector, I think Audubon’s inclination to record nature and its details life-sized adds yet another attractive dimension to this body of work.

There is much scholarship on the Havell edition and its creation. Anyone wishing to learn more about them should be encouraged to start their search for information online.  For the newcomer I would even suggest Wikipedia as their starting point.  There are several articles dedicated to Audubonand even an article dedicated to his first publication “Birds of America”all with excellent references for further study.   Besides the articles and in my opinion a greater resource provided by Wikipedia is a high-resolution library of each of the original “Birds of America” prints. So, do check it out!

The second body of work in this first grouping is the original first editon Royal Octavos. These prints were produced from 1841-1844.  They were simply the product of the Havell Edition’s success.  In Audubon’s desire to broaden the audience of his prints by creating a lesser expensive set, not to mention the additional income it raised for himself, the edition became a lesser expensive option for the public and Audubon was also able to increase the level of production.  Called octavo due to their size, they are approximately 1/8ththe size of the original Havell’s.  In this production the Havell images were reused with a few exceptions where only a portion of the original image was used to make better use of the smaller sheet size.  Also like the Havell’s the Octavo plates were hand-painted with color by a team of watercolor artisans.  The Octavo set is slightly different from the Havells in that an additional 65 illustrations were added making the total image set of 500 images. As with the Havell’s the Octavo’s were well received by the public.  It’s important to note that only the first edition was printed during Audubon’s lifetime.  Though there is not an exact accounting, it is believe that there were approximately 1,100 sets produced over this 4-year period.  Of course, there is no way to determine how many sets still exist today.  Full sets can occasionally still be acquired, but most of the sets I believe have been broken so that the prints could be sold individually on the antique print market.  A complete 7-volume set today will sell for around $100,00 based on condition.  With the positive reception of this octavo set, yet five more editions were published posthumously by Audubon’s heirs.  Latter articles on Audubon Collector will be dedicated to the octavo editions since they are offered on the website at great value to the collector.

Audubon Octavo Print First Edition for sale Pl 128 Hudson's Bay Titmouse, full sheet
Audubon Octavo Print First Edition for sale Pl 128 Hudson’s Bay Titmouse, full sheet

In the general landscape of Audubon Prints, because of their historical importance and rarity the original Havell edition prints represent the elite class of Audubon Print collecting.  Those interested in acquiring one ought to expect to open their wallet a bit.  In today’s market, entry level prints can start in the neighborhood of $5,000 each and for the more in-demand & iconic prints, prices of $100,000-plus each are notuncommon.  These prices are well out of the reach of most budgets.  However, individual prints from the Royal Octavos can still be obtainable for most.  Many of the lesser songbirds can still be acquired for about $50 while the very top in demand prints price up to $4,000.  Whenever you deal with images printed on paper that are 170 years old, “Condition is King”, meaning that any particular image can have a wide range of prices based on how the print has been handled and stored over time.  The Octavos are a great entry point for most people to consider starting an Audubon Print collection.  An octavo collection has many dimensions to it that would appeal to a would-be collector, whether it is antique, scientific or historical.

Second Grouping

The second groupings of prints are those described as being “faithful” reproductions.  I should take a moment to distinguish between a reproduction and a facsimile. I often tend to use the words interchangeably, though in actually, most of the prints under discussion are in fact facsimiles.  The difference is that a facsimile is an “exact” copy.  In terms of Audubon Prints an exact copy will include not only the focal image but all the original text.  That text will include the title but also other information such as the artist credits and other attributions as it is in the sourced original.  There have been many people who have come across an Audubon Print believing that they have stumbled upon an original Havell because the print in front of them has the credit to Havell in the margin, when in fact what they have found in nothing more that a modern “facsimile”, an exact copy.  A reproduction is also a copy, but it may not be exact.  A reproduction may have omissions.  An example of this can be found in examinging the Audubon Loates edition.  In the copying of these Audubon images, Loates the printmaker has selected to omit all attribution credits from the originally sourced print.  So, going forward please understand that when I use the word “reproduction”, nine times out of ten I really ought to be using “facsimile” as they are most prevalent copy in the landscape of Audubon Prints.  Apologies, now back to the discussion.

When discussing the second grouping I am generally referring to about 10 specific editions.   These editions all share a few if not all the following characteristics, which set them apart.  The first characteristic is that they attempt to mimic the look and feel of the original (usually a Havell edition print) they are based.  There are a few ways in which to achieve this goal.  One common trait among these editions is that they have been printed in the same size as the original.  A second common trend in these editions is that the printmaker has been given full access to the original print.  Because of the rarity and value of the originals this is not an easy task.  The few occasions where printmakers were given access to an original has been largely due to passing events, such as in the bicentennial of Audubon’s birth in 1985 where the National Audubon Society was able to create an arrangement where Abbeville Press, the publishing company, was able to be granted access to a full set of originals.  The access to these originals is useful in two situations.  First, it gives these printmakers the best source for print details and secondly it gives them a control from which to calibrate color to closely match the original.  Another common trait among these editions is in the materials selected to create these images.  Often, the finest fade proof inks available are sought and paper selection if often of high grade quality.  The paper selected is usually of heavy stock and select to age well with time.  The paper used is usually cotton-rag or wood pulp that has been chemically treated to remove its acidic qualities.  In other words, the materials used by the editions in this group were meant to last tens if not hundreds of years without any deterioration to the image.  Lastly, most of the prints in this category have been produced in limited edition sets.  That is the printmaker/producer has predetermined that they are only producing a set number of copies of each print, usually in the range of 250-1500 copies depending on the edition.  After these sets have been produced, the production run is ended.  The reasons for this are usually economical.  The limited runs are used in order to limit the availability of the prints to the market and therefore command a higher asking price.

Audubon Princeton Print for sale Plate 111 Pileated Woodpecker, full sheet view
Audubon Princeton Print for sale Plate 111 Pileated Woodpecker, full sheet view

As mentioned previously there are about ten editions that I feel that fall within this second grouping.  At Audubon Collector we offer as many as four of these editions at at any time at a great vale.  Prices vary widely based on the edition statistics and popularity. Some prints are offered as low as $50 and the most sought images offered at prices up to $2,000.  If I use some rough estimation, there may have been as many as 500,000 individual prints (not sets) that fall within this second grouping.  Based on some sources I have found devoted to the subject there have been as many as 30 million total Audubon Images produced/reproduced worldwide.  With these estimates at hand, the final calculation is that these prints represent about 1.5% of all the Audubon Images that have been produced.  This is just fussy math, not science, and doesn’t account for the prints that have been lost or destroyed, but I use it just to put forth the idea that the prints in this grouping though not extremely rare are not common either.

There is a subset of the second grouping that I will not devote a lot of time to in this article.  There have been more recently produced images that have been created using the newest digital technologies, both in the capturing of the image and in its printing. These prints utilize dot matrix printers where the image is sprayed onto the paper (all the previous prints discussed use varying lithography processes where the image is pressed upon the paper by a stone or metal plate).  High quality in this group can be obtained. Prices can be very high as well.  These prints are easily identified, as they’re commonly referred to on the market as giclée prints.  These prints can vary widely in their technical attributes and most are open editions, meaning the printmaker will continue to produce as many prints as the market will absorb because the production of any one print can be reran with relative ease.

 Third Grouping

The third grouping of Audubon prints is the group that I have described as being “decorative”.  This group represents roughly the 98% of all the other Audubon Prints you may come across.  I do not represent that this group be placed in any derogatory box.  There are many situations or reasons where this group is the right fit for any art lover or collector.  It may be due to economy of price or simply finding the perfectly sized print to fill that frame or empty space on the wall.  There are some examples of collectible good quality prints in this category, but overall the prints in this category are not always made on the premise of durability.  The materials used were not always chosen specifically for lasting hundreds of years but rather chosen based on accessibility, price.  Examples of this class maybe found at your local print shop, or from an old calendar on Audubon Art, or taken from a page of a vintage magazine which featured Audubon.  Not withstanding the exceptions, the prints in this category should be considered expendable, prone to fading over time on paper that may grow fragile and deteriorate with exposure.  Also, most prints in this category have used stock photos as their source and the quality of these images may have been compromised at the beginning of the printing process.


In summary I hope this article helps serve as a primer to those new and interested in Audubon Prints, printmaking and collecting.  I have merely introduced some of the facets and intricacies of print collecting here and hope to delve a little deeper on some of the subjects and themes introduced in this article in the near future.  However, if you do not wish to wait till then more information is readily available today with a simple search on the Internet.  There are many reasons why we collect, it’s a subject I’m not willing to tackle yet, but would advise anyone interested in starting a collection, that they do it primarily for the sake of their own recreation and enjoyment.  This way you can never go wrong.