Audubon's birds are flying high among collectors

Bird watchers will be flocking to Christie's in New York for a sighting of a rare species: a complete circa 1827-1838 first edition of John James Audubon's "Birds of America," which will be landing on the auction block Friday. The four leather-bound volumes, containing a total of 435 "double elephant folio"-size hand-colored engravings (measuring 29 1/2 by 39 1/2 inches each), are accompanied by five separate volumes of Audubon's text. They've been winging their way East since early October,

stopping for public viewings in San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas and New Orleans in hopes of enticing a bidder to spend an estimated $2.8 to $3.5 million for the renowned book, one of only a handful of copies remaining in private hands.


The greatest

Christie's books and manuscripts expert, Stephen C. Massey, calls Audubon's creation "the greatest bird book of all time." Not only is it notable for superb drawing by a self-taught artist, realistic colors, animated composition, and images of now-extinct species, but it's the first ornithological reference book containing life-size illustrations. In all, 1,065 birds are depicted.


Scholars estimate that 199 to 223 copies were produced of the first edition folios of "Birds of America," engraved and colored by William Home Lizars of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Robert Havell Sr. and Robert Havell Jr. of London. Audubon sold them by subscription in England, Europe and America. (A U.S. subscription cost $1,000.) Around 119 copies survive, although many are missing plates and others are damaged or unbound. Seventeen copies have been offered at auction since 1973; 12 of them were sold print by print. The auction record for a complete copy, $4.07 million, was set at Christie's in 1992.

Worth more intact

The copy currently for sale is in particularly good condition, retaining its vivid original color and showing remarkably little wear from handling, Mr. Massey says. Christie's won't identify the consignor, who wants anonymity.

Auctioning "Birds of America" intact as one lot rather than print by print is a wise business move because a complete bound first edition currently is worth more than the sum of its parts, according to dealer W. Graham Arader III, who says he stocks around $10 million worth of Audubon prints in his galleries in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston and San Francisco. He claims he's prepared to bid up to $2 million for the copy Christie's is auctioning.

"You used to be able to buy a complete set for around $1 million and break it up for $1.4 million," Mr. Arader said, noting that the "break value" presently is around $2.4 million -- less than what he expects Christie's will get on Friday. Although many book dealers, collectors and librarians frown on "breaking" such a rare and important book and dispersing it sheet by sheet, there's no guarantee the purchaser won't do just that if per-print prices for Audubons fly sky-high once again.

Interest in Audubon's birds derives in part from their undisputed stature as American icons. Most Americans are familiar with Audubon's art from ubiquitous reproductions on calendars, greeting cards and even laminated coasters. "If you walk down a street and ask 100 people to name one American artist they know, 90 will be able to say John James Audubon," declares the ebullient Mr. Arader. "Name a city that doesn't have an Audubon Road or an Audubon Park. He's the most famous name in American art history."

Available at all prices

Although only the "best-nested" can take home a complete first edition, there are Audubon bird prints to suit any budget. Single unframed first edition double elephant folio prints start around // $1,500, depending on the popularity of the bird, its background and condition, according to dealer Donald Cresswell of the Philadelphia Print Shop in Philadelphia. Smaller prints and later editions are more affordable. Mr. Cresswell sells for $150 and up unframed individual prints from the first "octavo" edition (measuring approximately 6 1/2 by 10 3/4 inches each), engraved and hand-colored by John T. Bowen of Philadelphia from 1840 to 1844. Unframed prints from the second octavo edition, which was chromolithographed and published in 1859 in New York by the artist's son, Victor Gifford Audubon, start at $85 at the Philadelphia Print Shop.


One of the earliest chromolithographed editions was produced by Julius Bien and published in 1860 by Audubon's youngest son, John Woodhouse Audubon. Some of Bien's double elephant folio size prints differ from those in the first edition. Because of the Civil War, the Bien edition never was completed, making its rare prints desirable among collectors. As a result, they usually fetch about half the price of first edition hand-colored Havell engravings, according to Mr. Cresswell.

Steady business

"Audubon prints are a steady, predictable business," Mr. Cresswell observes, noting that since so many have been auctioned, anyone can look up the price results and know a print's approximate value. "Folks who have them generally don't want to sell for less than the auction price, and collectors usually don't want to pay much more than the going auction value," he added. Obviously this leaves little room for a retailer's profit in a competitive market. (The well-regarded "Handbook of Audubon Prints," by Taylor Clark and Lois Elmer Bannon, which includes a brief but helpful history and a price guide, costs $17.50 postpaid from the Philadelphia Print Shop, 8441 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19118, [215] 242-4750.)

Widely available commercial Audubon reproductions of purely decorative value typically are not carried by fine print dealers. Mr. Cresswell occasionally sells 1950s or '60s reproductions for about $5 to $10 each, but warns that "They cost more to frame than the value of the print." The only recent reproductions of quality and value, according to Mr. Arader, is a 1971 offset photo-lithography edition published by Nico Israel in Amsterdam. Arader says he recently sold some, priced at $200 to $1,500 per print, to Sony, the Japanese entertainment giant, to decorate its new offices in a postmodern New York skyscraper.