How to Identify Original Audubon Prints
A Primer on the Authentication of Audubon Original Prints
For detailed criteria in identifying the original prints from the five different editions, the reader is referred to the excellent book by the noted Audubon scholar, Bill Steiner : "Audubon Art Prints / A Collector's guide to every Edition", University of South Carolina Press, 2003. Please also refer to the monograph "Identifying Audubon Bird Prints" by Robert Braun, published in 2001 by the American Historical Print Collectors Society.
(1) Havell Edition:
These are copper plate engravings with etching.
(a) Sheet Dimensions: The original double elephant folio paper used had approximate dimensions of 39 ½” x 26 ½”. When they were bound, often there was some trimming in both dimensions as part of the binding process. Sometimes, some owners of individual prints might decide to trim off the small edge tears further (instead of having them repaired). Thus, in general, sheets with dimensions from ~37” to 39 ½” in length and 24” to 26 ½” in width are described as full sheets. To reduce the framing costs, many early collectors have often trimmed these original prints very close to the platemark (unfortunately, this reduces the value of the print as well).
(b) Watermarks: The original paper used in the production of the double elephant folio were made by the venerable Whatman paper company in England. They exhibit the characteristic watermarks (either J Whatman or J Whatman/ Turkey Mill with the year printed below). A couple of examples are shown below. These watermarks are generally located parallel and close to the longer edge of the paper:
Some of the early collectors have trimmed down the Havell edition prints drastically to the platemark (primarily to save on framing costs, and occasionally to remove any damage (like tears) outside the platemark), and in that process have trimmed the Whatman watermark too (thereby unwittingly and drastically diminishing the value of the print).
(c) Hand-coloring: The original Havell edition prints were all skillfully hand-colored by highly experienced artists in the printing shop (William Lizars in Edinburgh and R. Havell & Son in London). When examined with a 10x or 15x jeweler’s loupe, the images do not show any dot-matrix pattern characteristic of modern off-set lithography (such Amsterdam and Abbeville editions). Often, one can see some overfills and underfills of the watercolor against the darker outlines (usually noticeable in leaves, grass blades, tree branches etc).
(d) Platemarks: For the Havell edition, the original watercolor paintings by Audubon were transferred as engraved mirror images on to rectangular copperplates (often accompanied by etching and aquatint in the process). These copperplates (after inking) were pressed against the double elephant folio paper in a press to transfer the image to the paper, which was then hand-colored by the skilled artists mentioned above. This pressing of the copperplate against the paper in a heavy press resulted in rectangular platemarks. The precise dimensions of these rectangular platemarks for each of the 435 images have been recorded (e.g., see Christie’s 2004 catalog “The Magnificent Sachsen-Meiningen Set of Audubon’s The Birds of America”). If the platemarks do not match the listed platemarks for the original Havell prints, they are not originals (e.g., some of the later facsimile reproductions have false platemarks, to mimic the appearance of the Havell edition prints. But the dimensions of these false platemarks are usually slightly different from the authentic platemark dimensions).
(e) Paper: Hand-made wove paper
(2) Bien Edition:
Audubon’s younger son, John Woodhouse, wanted to issue a second printing of their father’s famous Birds of America consisting of hand-colored engravings with etching. However, to reduce the costs, he opted to use newly emerging technique of chromolithography and recruited Julius Bien, a foremost expert in this style of printing.
(a) Sheet Dimensions:
Sheets with large images have similar dimensions as the full sheets of Havell edition prints (i.e., ~ 39 ½” x 26 ½”), and sometimes may be slightly larger. However, the smaller images were printed two per sheet (either top and bottom vertically, or side-by-side horizontally). A typical example of an original Bien edition print with two images vertically is shown in our Bien edition gallery. Many of these sheets were cut in half by collectors to separate the two images (for framing them individually), thereby resulting in some Bien edition prints with half the dimensions of a full sheet.
(b) Marginalia at the top and bottom:
The credits at lower right of the full sheet will typically read “Chromolithy J. Bien, New York” followed by the year (any where between 1858 to 1862). The Credits at the lower left of the full sheet will be to Audubon. However, if the sheets with two images were cut in half, depending upon whether they are horizontal or vertical images, the credits could be missing (e.g., in the top image in a sheet cut horizontally) or have either a credit only to Audubon (left image in a sheet cut vertically) or to Bien (right image). If there are any additional credits below, they are 20th century reproductions.
(c ) Images:
The chromolithography process consisted of transferring the original outline of a Havell edition image onto printing stones (anywhere from 6 to 20) with each stone colored with a unique color, and then pressed onto the paper in register. Thus these Bien edition images do not show any dot-matrix pattern when viewed with 10x or 15x magnification loupe. Often, some of the images were finished by hand with watercolors to accentuate the image areas.
(d ) Paper:
Many of the Bien edition images were printed on wood-pulp paper (instead of the J Whatman wove paper in the Havell edition). Over time, this paper became brittle (due to acidification from the residual wood pulp) and it is not uncommon to see Bien edition Audubon prints backed by japan paper or linen to stabilize them from tearing up and chipping. Coming across the original Bien edition prints without such backing is very rare indeed. Our gallery lists several of these rare Bien edition originals without such backing.
(3) Imperial Folio Edition of the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America:
(a) Sheet dimensions:
Approximately 28” x 22” on wove paper. When the prints were bound into volumes, there might be some trimming in both dimensions. In addition, some early collectors have trimmed the sheets slightly for framing purposes.
The images were printed by stone lithography and each image was hand-colored by highly skilled colorists in the Bowen shop in Philadelphia. There will be no dot-matrix pattern when viewed with a 10x or 15x magnification loupe.
(4) Octavo Edition Birds:
(a) Size: The octavo edition bird prints are typically around 6 ½” x 10” in size.
(b) Images: The images were printed as black and white (from Havell prints using Camera Lucida ) on cotton-rag paper by stone lithography, followed by skillful hand-coloring of each image. There is no dot-matrix pattern.
(c) First Edition vs Later Editions: The first edition bird prints do not have a background color (with the exception of three plates which have a background color: 19-Iceland-Jer Falcon, 28-Snowy Owl, and 34-Barn Owl). The second and later editions have a second-stone tint. In the First edition, plates 1-150, and 186-189 carry credits at the bottom in block letters; all the remaining plates carry credits in italic letters. All other editions have the credits at the bottom in block letters.
For additional criteria in distinguishing the editions, the reader is referred to the wonderful books by Bill Steiner and Ron Tyler (see the books listed in the page about John James Audubon).
(5) Octavo Edition Quadrupeds:
(a) Size: The octavo edition bird prints are typically around 6 ½” x 10” in size.
(b) Images: The images were printed as black and white (from the Imperial Folio using Camera Lucida) on cotton-rag paper by stone lithography, followed by skillful hand-coloring of each image. There is no dot-matrix pattern.
(c) First Edition vs Later Editions: Usually it is very difficult to tell the first editions from later editions. One exception is that the first 30 or so plates of the first edition carry a credit to Nagel and Weingaertner on the lower right (a credit to Bowen in Phialadelphia appears in all the remaining first edition prints and on all prints in later editions).