At Christies Fantasy takes Flight
Audubon's American White Pelican
By Bruce McKinney
If we could close our eyes and wake up with one printed item in the attic, closet or under the Christmas tree it might well be the eight volume Audubon elephant folio "The Birds of America; from Original Drawings" and printed in parts between 1827 and 1838. This monumental set includes "435 hand-colored, etched and aquatinted plates, by William H. Lizars [Edinburgh], Robert Havell, Sr and Robert Havell Jr [London], after Audubon's original life-size watercolor drawings, on J. Whatman and J. Whatman Turkey Mill paper with watermarks dated 1827 - 1838." Recently someone paid $20 million to go into space on a Russian rocket. At Christies in New York on December 15th, for an estimated $5 to 7 million, you can go into history with a permanent place in the milky way of printed works. This is the far better deal.
This set is offered by one of the 85 original subscribers, The Providence Athenaeum of Providence, Rhode Island. Within the Athenaeum there has been disagreement among board members about the propriety of selling this landmark of printing. As the set now moves to the auction block the advocates for selling await the outcome having already won the house debate. The Athenaeum plans to use the proceeds to buttress its reserves and make needed improvements. The sale is further complicated by condition issues which, while virtually every book has them, are particularly important in establishing value in books of prints. Bidders will do well to seek the advice of one of the principal experts in the print field for an assessment of condition. Four are listed at the end of this article.
The history and condition of the set is extensively described, the single-owner history a rare accompaniment to an exceedingly rare and important set. I quote.
"The Providence Athenaeum's copy of Audubon's Birds of America was ordered unbound as loose sheets for exhibition purposes, through which the Athenaeum hoped to recuperate some [if not all] of the daunting subscription costs for the work. In 1847, the complete set of loose plates was bound in four volumes by the New York binder James Sinew at a cost of $60. In 1929, each plate was linen backed and the plates were rebound into eight volumes by F.J. Barnard & Co. of Boston at a cost of $1,208 [more than the original subscription cost].
The conservation project was extremely successful and apart from the slight discoloration at edge extremes [predominantly in Vol. 1] and some small abraded areas on some sheet versos, the linen-backing was imperceptibly removed from the plates...."
At Christies Fantasy takes Flight
Snowy Heron or White Egret
"At the time of the de-lining, twelve plates and three titles pages were backed with RK29 japanese paper using wheat starch paste, as they had sustained earlier damage while bound....Through the earlier rebindings, the prints had been trimmed slightly. The sheet was 38" x 25 1/4", which was slightly smaller than the original size."
Today the complete set of prints is matted, each in a window mat and housed in 44 solander boxes.
For the past quarter century sets have come to market with some regularity. More frequently individual plates come up but substantially complete sets as well. Only last year a very good eastern European set came to market and brought $5,539,700 for 428 of the 435 plates. In 2000 the Fox-Bute complete copy, widely considered a gem, brought $8,000,000. In 1992 the original subscriber set of the University of Edinburgh brought $3,700,000. The Deerfield Academy copy brought $2,720,000 in 1990. The Bradley Martin copy, described as "a magnificent set in exceptionally fine condition" brought $3,600,000 in 1989. In 1984 the National Academy of Sciences Library sold their copy through Sotheby's for $1,440,000. In recent years a strong print market has flourished, adding interest from print dealers who "break" and resell the individual plates.
Left unsaid is this. Next to the Gutenberg Bible a set of the original Audubon double folio prints is America's and possibly the world's most coveted printed item. If this is something that interests you, you are advised to both get into discussions with Christies and separately obtain impartial expert advice.
To obtain such advice I include the names of several dealers who are familiar with the Audubon market.
Ben Weinstein of Heritage Book Shop  659-3674.
Bill Reese, William Reese Company  789-8081.
Tom Edsall, 19th Century Shop  727-2665.
Donald Heald, Donald A. Heald Rare Books  744-3505.
Joel Oppenheimer, The Natural History Art Gallery  642-5300.