Strategies for Collecting Audubon Prints

By Terry Wright

One of the wonderful things about collecting Audubon is the wide array of choices, bordering on the endless, available to collectors. The creativity and proclivities of the individual collector are really the only limits to collecting Audubon printed art. In his lifetime, Audubon created double elephant (Havell edition) and octavo birds editions, as well as imperial and octavo quadrupeds. His family continued production of additional editions (Bien, Octavo), after his death. All told there are close to 650 Audubon images represented in these editions, even before considering variations between the same image from edition to edition or within an edition. Since the originals were created, countless reproductions and facsimiles have been struck. This wide variety of originals and facsimiles provides nearly limitless combinations for a collector to develop a meaningful collection with budgets ranging from several hundred to several million dollars. This article provides some general ideas for collecting Audubon prints and hopefully stimulates some creative sparks for new collectors.

Whether one has a budget of a few hundred dollars or many tens of thousands of dollars, there is Audubon art within reach of every collector. Establishing a budget and a strategy are among the first details to be considered in collecting Audubon. A collector with a budget of $1000 should not focus on Havell prints commanding from several thousand dollars up to $200,000, each. However, this amount is more than enough to obtain some nice octavo first editions or an even wider array of 2nd (or later) octavos. Probably the hardest part is determining a collecting strategy once a budget is established.

Here are a few ideas. Start with a goal in mind. Ask yourself, am I just decorating a room, do I have favorite birds, or do I intend to become a serious collector? Do I prefer birds or quadrupeds, or do I want representations of each? Do I want life-sized images or am I limited in space? A novice collector may decide a collection of octavo birds and/or octavo quadrupeds are desirable. The budget can then lead the collector to consider 1st edition or later editions prints. Often the later edition prints are as rare, or rarer, than 1st editions, and every bit as pleasing to the eye, yet they still fetch less because so many collectors are fixated on 1st editions (For example, Audubon’s seventh edition of octavo birds may be the rarest.)

With a larger budget, a collector may consider a cross-section of Audubon prints, either quadrupeds or birds. For example, it may be a goal of a collector to own representatives of each original edition, that is a Havell, a Bien, a 1st edition octavo bird, an imperial folio quad and an octavo quad. Or, they may decide to own a few birds/quads within an edition, such as owning several imperial folio quads or Havell or Bien edition prints. An ambitious collector may also decide they wish, as a goal, to own prints of certain birds. Again, having a budget will help with the decisions. One can own a copy of the Flamingo, plate 431, for about $250, if one buys a Princeton edition facsimile; the Amsterdam edition retails for about $4500; the Havell of this plate would fetch approximately $200,000, as of this writing (2005). For the price of one good Havell, a collector could buy an entire folio of 435 images in the Amsterdam or Abbeville editions.

Audubon is most noted for his birds. So, we will discuss some strategies for collecting birds. Of course, parallel discussions may be had around the quadrupeds. The following discussion does not consider editions, but only ‘themes’ for collecting birds. That is, one can decide on a collecting theme and then pursue it with various options (original or facsimile, 1st edition or later octavo, double elephant size or octavo size) with the collector’s budget as the guide. Again, there is no right or wrong, good or bad, way to collect this art. Just choose a theme or strategy that suites your tastes, décor, investment strategy or personal tastes.

Here are some collecting themes. A starting collector may decide to focus on something simple, like common backyard or songbirds. For example, one might set a goal of collecting a Robin, Blue Jay, Goldfinch and Cardinal (these are all highly sought after images). Personally, I like the wading birds - the cranes, egrets and herons - and collect those. That’s what I hang on my walls. Some are partial to game birds, say the turkeys, ducks, geese, grouse, woodcock, and quail, which make a very nice grouping. Birds of prey, owls, woodpeckers, warblers or other families of birds are also common choices. For example, there are four Ibises (Wood, Glossy, Scarlet and White) in Audubon’s work and they may be the family of choice. One dealer related to me the story of a collector who rotated his collection by the season, displaying winter birds during winter, summer birds during summer, etc. One idea that struck a cord with me was collecting the birds endangered or extinct since Audubon’s time – he writes of the abundance of the ivory billed woodpecker and the passenger pigeon, for example. There is no limit to creativity here. With one of these strategies, generally expect to pay more for the larger birds (hawks, owls, turkeys, cranes, egrets and herons) and less for the smaller birds (warblers, sparrows, chickadees, thrushes, wrens and finches).

Other collecting themes include the State birds series (see list of State birds by Audubon plate # in the reference section of this website.) or the top 10, 20, or 50 images according to some criteria, such as average retail (reflecting popularity/scarcity). For example, the Oppenheimer Field Edition of Audubon’s birds may closely represent the 50 most desirable images based on popularity and retail value of the Havell images. Of course, there is no limit to the creativity one may enjoy in setting about collecting Audubon art. And, in the end, maybe one just decides on certain individual images that are meaningful to him or her without picking a collecting ‘theme’.

Once a theme or collection of images are identified to become acquisitions, there are still choices to be made. These go back to validating the budget. If you find your goals are bigger than your budget allows, here are some acquisition strategies to consider. First, establish a relationship with a dealer and consider making multiple purchases at one time; this can lead to great deals and maximum mileage for your budget. Second, consider buying an octavo instead of a double elephant image. (Some 65 images are only available as octavos since they were never produced in the Havell or Bien editions). Third, consider buying a later edition octavo instead of a 1st edition – they are original Audubon and look just as pleasing, same size, are also hand colored, etc. All these strategies can save you money and you will still end up with original Audubon collectible prints. For further savings, consider collecting the modern semi-precious limited edition facsimile prints. Even these come at varying price levels. The Amsterdam edition (1971-2) prints (250 copies) are the most sought after (based on retail price), being very well done and the first edition to recreate the full series of Birds of America since Audubon’s day. One step down (in retail price level) are the Abbeville edition (1985) prints, limited to 350 copies. As of this writing they are selling at approximately a one-third discount to the Amsterdam prints and are easier to obtain. The Oppenheimer Field edition is limited to (the top) 50 prints and they currently sell for just under $1000 per print. The Princeton edition prints, currently limited to 36 images, but 1500 copies, sell for just a few hundred dollars each and most are still available from the publisher.

Whatever you decide, there is no right or wrong, good or bad. In the end, your collection reflects who you are and your personal tastes. I encourage every collector to pursue what they like and would feel proud to own and display.

One aspect of collecting I have not touched upon in this article is collecting as an investment or for appreciation. I am not qualified as an art appraiser or investment advisor, and this article does not purport to give any advice on investing for capital appreciation. Having said this, I have conferred with multiple dealers who confirm the original Audubon art has appreciated very well in recent years. This, in turn, has resulted in a drag-along effect for the good facsimiles. The complete Amsterdam edition folio is now (2005) selling at more than 10 times its original subscription price in 1972. As of this writing, original Havell prints sell for up to $200,000 and a complete first edition octavo of birds is about to be listed for $150,000.

© February 2005 by Terrance M. Wright - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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