Five of the entries on the list of the top ten most expensive books ever sold are copies of The Birds of America by John James Audubon. The double elephant folio sold for $10.3 million in 2010. A giant in both price and volume – the complete work measures 39.5 inches by 28.5 inches and contains 435 plates.
There’s a good reason that the book commands such high prices. Audubon created a genre of illustration that didn’t exist before. He depicted his birds life-size, exhibiting normal behaviors in their natural habitats. His abilities as an artist and high scientific standards are perfectly captured in his illustrations, and people of all ages and backgrounds are drawn to these lifelike images.Thankfully, for those of us who don’t have an extra $12 million lying around, individual prints from inside the book are often available at auction. In each Skinner Fine Books & Manuscripts Auctions, we offer large Havell and Bien Audubon plates, 19th century octavo-format sets of The Birds, individual octavo plates, and quadruped plates in octavo and folio formats. We also sold a complete folio edition of Audubon’s Quadrupeds.
3 Tips for determining the value of Audubon prints:
1. Size matters!
Knowing the edition is critical. Prints from the first edition were published by Havell and should measure approximately 30 x 40 inches. They were printed on watermarked wove paper by copperplate engraving and are hand-colored. These prints came out in the 1820s-1830s. Bien, a publisher in New York, printed a selection of plates by chromolithograph in the 1860s. These are nearly the same size but have a different paper and imprint. The octavo plates, by comparison only measure about 10 x 6 inches.
2. Understand condition issues
Prints should never be mounted onto board, as acid can leach into the paper and affect the color. Exposure to direct sunlight fades the colors and can brown the paper. Folds, tears, or worn corners also affect the value of a print. Remember, prints are multiples – most collectors want to find and purchase the copy in the most pristine condition possible. These plates are nearly 200 years old, and much can happen to compromise condition. Even so, some examples are still in excellent shape.
3. What’s your favorite animal?The subject matter of an Audubon print also helps determine the value. Larger birds tend to bring higher prices than the smaller songbirds. Great Blue Heron, American Flamingo, and Wild Turkey are three of the most valuable prints of The Birds of America. However, some of the smaller birds can also bring high prices at auction, including the Carolina Parrot, Robin, Mockingbird, and Ruff-Necked Hummingbird. The charm of the composition also affects value and the attitude of the animals. There’s something about the look of Audubon’s quadrupeds, the mother skunk defending her cubs looks defiant, and the presence of the Audubon raccoon is arresting and familiar to anyone who has interrupted a midnight garbage raid.
If you have any Audubon prints that you would like assessed, please send an email with photographs, measurements, and a description and we will be happy to help you in any way we can. Collectors should set up lot alerts on the My Skinner section of the website. You wouldn’t want to miss out on the next great thing!
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in November 2013 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.