What you see: The flamingo plate from the double elephant folio version of The Birds of America by John James Audubon. Sotheby’s estimates it at $6 million to $8 million.
The expert: Selby Kiffer, senior vice president and international senior books specialist for Sotheby’s New York.
First, let’s talk about who Audubon was, and what he went through to create this book. Audubon was initially a nature lover and in particular, a bird lover. As a boy growing up in France and as an older teen in the United States, he loved seeing birds, and he loved drawing birds. But he didn’t have the sense of that as his profession. He ran a shop, and worked in a museum for a while, but he kept being drawn back to nature.
I understand that Alexander Wilson paid a visit to Audubon’s shop, and that proved to be something of a turning point? Wilson showed him his portfolio of drawings for his own book of American birds. Audubon was polite, but he recognized that his [drawings] were far superior to Wilson’s. He was hit with the idea of making drawings and sharing them with a wider audience.
Was Audubon the first person to show the birds at full size in the pages of a book? Audubon hit upon the idea of depicting the birds at actual size, which had never been done before. For wrens and robins, that’s easily done. For big water birds, that presents a challenge. Because he spent so much time outside, he understood their habits informed what they did. He was not looking at stuffed, taxidermied birds. He was out in the field, appreciating them in natural poses in their own environment. He devoted years of his life to tramping around the United States and tried to present them as living creatures, not stuffed portraits.
What talents did Audubon need to have to make The Birds of America a reality? He was an artist, but he was also an entrepreneur, a promoter and an organizer. It was the work of one person, but he had a large support system. He needed to find a paper manufacturer who could fulfill his vision to depict the birds at life-size and found one in England. One of the ironies of Birds of America is to find a craftsman capable of producing the book, he had to go to Great Britain. He had to find engravers who could fully translate [his images] into print. He needed colorists to translate the vividness of his watercolors. And he had to find subscribers to pay for it.
Yes, can we talk about how Audubon’s The Birds of America isn’t like books sold today – you couldn’t walk into a bookstore and buy a complete copy, you had to subscribe to it? It was years in preparation. It took 11 years to complete, and it was issued by subscription and in parts. By getting subscribers to support the book, Audubon had some capital to begin with. Birds of America was issued in monthly parts of five engravings: one large bird, one medium-size bird, and three smaller birds. It was not issued taxonomically. You didn’t get all the owls or all the songbirds at once. You had to wait for 20 parts to be completed and then you got an engraved title page for volume one, to have it bound. It was a long process for Audubon and for the people who subscribed to his work. But once people saw the engravings and the quality of them, I’m sure they got excited waiting for the next installment to come, and I’m sure there was sadness after the last title page arrived.
And I understand that 119 complete copies of the double elephant folio version of Audubon’s The Birds of America were produced? Audubon got at least 161 subscriptions, and I think he printed additional copies. The best guess is 175 to 200 full sets were completed. The most recent census we have is 119 complete or essentially complete copies, mostly in university libraries or museums. Approximately 60 sets were lost, or more likely, taken apart and sold plate by plate.
How many of those 119 copies of Audubon’s The Birds of America are theoretically available to the market? 115 are privately owned. Three have migrated from institutions to private hands.
Through deaccession [an institution releasing items from its holdings]? Or realizing they don’t have the resources to keep a book like this, or they change their institutional mission and the book is no longer germane.
Audubon produced several versions of The Birds of America. Why is the double elephant folio version the most desirable of them all? As in all book-collecting, it’s king because it’s first. You want the first edition, you don’t want the 10th edition. And it’s the only edition that depicts the birds at life-size. Even in the 19th century, it was an expensive book. Only the wealthy and institutions could afford it.
How is the octavo version different from the double elephant folio version of The Birds of America? It’s a reduced-size version. With a few exceptions, the birds are not depicted at life size. It’s still a very beautiful edition, and the plates are colored by hand. But the difference between them is like seeing the Statue of Liberty and picking up a souvenir of the Statue of Liberty at a New York gift shop. It’s a difference in scale.
I understand that The Birds of America devotes a separate volume to its text, and the volumes with the plates are just that–volumes with plates. Why did Audubon design the book in that way? He did it deliberately, and not just because it was difficult to read pages of that size. He was required to give two copies of books with text to the United Kingdom [a rule that then applied to every book printed in the country]. He avoided that by printing the plates separately and [satisfying the law by] giving the text volume.
Do the text volumes that go with the double elephant folio version of The Birds of America tend to survive alongside the plates-only volumes, or do they tend to part ways? They’re often found separated. The text is a wonderful account, a great story of Western exploration. The sad fact is – and I don’t know if this is a sad fact or not – when we think of The Birds of America, we think of the plates. Many copies don’t have text, or they don’t have the text that was issued with it. In the larger scheme of things, it’s not considered a significant flaw if a copy lacks the text. Because it was published separately, it’s not integral to the book.
The 435 plates in Audubon’s The Birds of America were colored by hand. How did that work? It was actually fairly efficient, and certainly meticulously done. It was intricate work. There was a roomful of colorists, mostly women, but some men and some children. They worked from a pattern plate that was probably colored by Audubon himself. It was an assembly line. One colorist would do all the green areas and pass it to someone else to do the yellow areas. The most skilled colorists would do the birds themselves. We’re very fortunate that this copy benefits from being overseen by very talented colorists.
The overview for this copy of Audubon’s The Birds of America on the Sotheby’s website notes that the “plates are in a very early state”. Could you elaborate? What does that say about this copy of the book? It goes back to the standards of book-collecting. You want the earliest. Primacy is important. If there’s a misprint on the title page of the book, and it’s discovered and corrected after 100 copies are printed, book collectors want the one with the error.
The overview also describes this copy of Audubon’s The Birds of America as being “unusually large and brilliantly colored.” Again, could you elaborate? And is it more “brilliantly colored” than other examples of the same book? Any bound set that’s remained bound and not overly displayed is more brightly colored than a book that’s been broken up and the plates framed. With this book, The Birds of America, there are so many large images it’s important they’re not cut down, because some of the birds take up almost the whole page. If you shave it, you could shave a feather or a beak. This is a set that hasn’t been trimmed very much at all. There’s very little loss of any images and it’s had the luck to go through the hands of a master colorist, so the images are brilliant.
What else helped preserved the colors of the plates of this copy of Audubon’s The Birds of America? The subscriber was an institution, the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. It was not in the open library. It could not be checked out. It’s a combination of it being colored very well and preserved well over the centuries.
What makes Audubon’s The Birds of America such a great and desirable book? Several reasons. One, birds still cast a spell. It goes back to Audubon’s fascination with them. As a species, they’re beautiful. There are many bird-watching societies. People enjoy birds. Second is the book itself. It was highly unusual at the time and it was unprecedented to produce a book of this size. If you go to a library where it’s on view, or an auction house that’s selling it, you can see the monumental size of it. Third is the whole notion of one man’s obsession to get the book to completion. And frankly, I would not discount the value part of the equation. A book that could sell for five, six, seven, eight million dollars – that’s exciting.
Sotheby’s sent over high-res images of some of the key plates from the book, and I’d like to discuss each in turn. Could we start with the Carolina parrots? Why is this such a strong image? It goes back to the idea of observing birds in the wild and knowing how they behave. A few decades before Audubon, birds were shown absolutely still, in profile, on a branch. That’d be it. Here, he’s showing a flock, or portion of a flock. He shows males, females and one juvenile at the bottom with his green head. He shows them in the tree they live in. They interact with each other in a variety of poses. By showing us multiple birds, he shows action and activity and fills the page, showing them in 360 degrees. You don’t feel like you’re looking at an engraving. You feel like you’re looking at a tree full of birds. And it’s an interesting plate as well because it’s one of the birds Audubon depicts that’s extinct.
Next we have the American flamingo, which bowls me over because in lesser hands, this could have been a mess, but it looks perfectly natural. It’s the encapsulation of Audubon’s achievement in a single plate. He took an enormous, wonderful scarlet bird and gets it in there without looking unnatural or awkward. And he throws in anatomical details at the top, which he very seldom does. It’s a great combination of artistry, science, and the personal observation behind the artistry.
And we have a night scene with the Snowy Owls. Which is very rare. I think there are only two other night scenes out of the other 435 plates. You’re drawn to the birds and initially, you don’t understand that it’s a night scene. But he uses the night scene to make the white of the bird really pop out. They’re up a tree on a mountain, a very dramatic setting and a very powerful image.
How many double elephant folio copies of Audubon’s The Birds of America have you handled? I think this will be the fifth copy I’m involved with selling. I have appraised other copies. Probably, in all, I’ve seen the better part of 20 different copies.
The copy of Audubon’s The Birds of America that holds the world auction record sold at Sotheby’s London in December 2010. Were you present for that sale? Yes.
How does this copy compare to the record-setting copy you sold 10 years ago? They’re very similar, but one principal difference is the 2010 copy, the Hesketh copy, was in a more elaborate binding. This has a less expensive binding appropriate for the [subscribing] institution, and just as appropriate for the work. The Hesketh is one of the finest copies ever sold. If I had to rank them, Hesketh is 1, and this is 1A. It was in an institution and it did have more handling than the Hesketh copy had. I’d give a slight edge to the Hesketh, but that in no way diminishes the fine condition of this copy.
Does it edge out the Hesketh on the quality of the hand-coloration of its plates? That is harder to remember. I’d say the very best plates of this copy are as good as or better than the Hesketh. They are very comparable. The best plates here are luminous and saturated with color.
What is the book like in person? It has nuance of color and amazing gradation. A bird from across the way looks blue or brown or black. Up close, you appreciate the differences of shade and you see the detail in the flowers, the blades of grass, and the animals in the background. The luminosity is just stunning. And to see it in person – wow, the book really is almost 4 feet high. We aren’t used to seeing a bound work of this size.
It’s tricky to do now. Absolutely, and in some ways, it’s not practical. What would you do with it? This came with a George IV oak cabinet, so that part is solved.
Sotheby’s is selling this copy of Audubon’s The Birds of America in a single-lot auction. Is this the first time that’s happened? I think it might be. We don’t do single-lot catalogs very often. When we do, they go on to set records. It not only says something about the regard the book is held in, but its potential to reach a high price as well.
Why will this copy of Audubon’s The Birds of America stick in your memory? The coloring, and the fact that it’s the second time I’ve been involved in selling it. In 1990, I went to London to assist in the cataloging [the last time Sotheby’s sold it]. I’ve been here a long time. To see the book come back almost 30 years later is very gratifying and exciting.
By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY
You can see all 435 plates of Audubon’s The Birds of America online at the website of the National Audubon Society.
Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction. Follow her on Twitter at @SGSwritereditor and on Instagram at @thehotbid.