Audubon Natural History Prints

How to Identify A First Edition Audubon Octavo Print

© January 2006 by Terrance M. Wright - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Audubon Birds of America ‘royal octavo’ edition prints continue to draw enormous interest as collectible art. They capture all the charm and beauty of Audubon’s obvious skill as an artist. Beyond this, they are more compact, and therefore less expensive to acquire, frame and display, than the larger double elephant folio works. Collectors with relatively little display space can always accommodate an octavo or two. Because of the growing value of Audubonalia, remaining sets will continue to be broken and sold as individual prints. One challenge for the amateur collector is to know exactly what is being purchased. Not all Audubon octavo prints are the same, and facsimiles do exist. Prices for Audubon prints vary according to print edition, condition and popularity. This article discusses how an amateur collector can differentiate a first edition print from the various others in circulation.

All in all there were at least seven editions of Audubon’s Birds of America. An 8th edition is purported but this conflicts with an account of the lithographic stones being destroyed in c. 1870. The original, or first edition, was printed in 1839-1844. John James Audubon oversaw the production of this work, personally. It is the only edition in which this is true. Audubon died in 1851, meaning that all future editions of the Royal Octavo were published without his involvement, although his family, and especially his sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse Audubon, continued to be involved in future editions of Audubon’s work. In 1856, Audubon’s sons published a second octavo edition of Birds of America. A third edition came out in 1859, the first to be jointly published with the firm of Roe Lockwood. Three additional editions were published by the Roe Lockwood Company in 1860, 1861, 1865, and a final edition was published by their successor, the George Lockwood Company, in 1870-71. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss nuances between these many editions. However, most collectors are interested in determining a first edition print from the others, and that is the focus of this article.

Table 1. Listing of Print editions of J.J. Audubon’s Birds of America

Edition Publication Date Publisher
1st 1839-44
J. J. Audubon & J.B. Chevalier
2nd 1856 V.G. Audubon
3rd 1859 V.G. Audubon, Roe Lockwood & Son
4th 1860 V.G. Audubon, Roe Lockwood & Son
5th 1861 J.W. Audubon, Roe Lockwood & Son
6th 1865 J.W. Audubon, Roe Lockwood & Son
7th 1870-71 George R. Lockwood

Before delving into differences between the octavo editions, it is instructive to discuss the similarities. Octavo prints, no matter the edition, are printed on paper larger than the typical ‘octavo’ size of approximately 5” x 9”. Audubon’s ‘royal octavo’ format used sheets of paper originally 6-1/2” x 10-3/4”. Bound sheets would have been trimmed to approximately 6-1/2” x 10-1/4”. However, these dimensions are not absolute. Birds of America was sold in subscription, in parts, and these were left to be bound by the purchaser; thus, significant variation in the bound works is to be expected. Typically, octavo prints present the following marginalia:

  • A Plate Number in the upper right corner of the print.
  • A ‘Part Number’ in the upper left corner of the print (the prints were issued in sequential parts with five prints to a part number).
  • A legend,usually in bottom center, presenting the name of the plants and birds in the print.
  • A drawer’s credit, typically initials of the artist who transferred the image to the lithographic stone for that print. This is often above the name of the bird in the legend. Not always Present.
  • An artist’s credit, such as “Drawn from Nature by J. J. Audubon F.R.S. F.L.S.”, in the lower left of the print. Not always present.
  • A printer’s credit, to Endicott or Bowen, in the lower right corner. Not always present.

All Birds of America octavo prints are hand-colored stone lithographs, with or without a tinted lithographed background (more on this later). There are copies, or facsimiles of the octavo birds, but these are typically chromolithographs or mechanical reproduction. B.H. Warren, published The Birds of Pennsylvania, 1888-1890, which copied many of Audubon’s images, in a similar size, using chromolithography. In modern times, there have been many copies of 1 st edition and later edition octavos, using offset printing techniques. Fortunately for the collector, these images are rather easy to detect, upon inspection. Using a magnifying glass or jeweler’s loupe, a chromolithograph will have a ‘blotchy’ appearance in the colored regions of the print. Warren’s prints also lacked part numbers, printer’s attribution and troublingly, artist attribution. A mechanical reproduction using offset lithography will demonstrate a regular matrix pattern of colored dots under magnification. Thus, the commonly encountered copies and facsimiles are fairly easy to distinguish from original works.

Assuming one has determined the print to be a genuine Audubon, not a copy or facsimile, as discussed above, there are a series of clues to authenticate a first edition octavo bird print. These clues involve examination of the print marginalia and the presence and type of colored background, if present. These will be discussed in turn. First we discuss the presence of a colored background because it is the easiest to detect. These colored backgrounds are rectangular or irregular ‘halo like’ in shape. Most first edition prints, while they do contain land and seascapes, typically do NOT contain a colored background of any kind. The exceptions to this observation are listed in table #1. It is readily apparent most of these are birds with white plumage (e.g Snowy Owl, Whooping Crane, Trumpeter Swan) and some contrasting background was necessary to properly highlight the bird and make it discernable on the page.



Table 2. 1st Edition Prints with Colored Backgrounds

Plate #


Background Shape


Bald Eagle






Snowy Owl



Barn Owl



Snow Bunting



Rock Ptarmigan



Whooping Crane



Wood Ibis



Great White Heron



Great White Egret



Snowy Heron



Trumpeter Swan



American Swan



Golden Eye Duck



White Merganser Smew.
White Nun



American White Pelican






Gull-billed Tern



Sandwich Tern



Common Tern



Arctic Tern



Least Tern



Bonaparte’s Gull



Kittiwake Gull



Ivory Gull



Ring-billed Gull



White-winged Silvery Gull



Herring Gull



Glaucus Gull Burgomaster



Fulmar Petrel



Black Guillemot


By contrast, a great majority of birds in the 2 nd and later editions are printed with colored backgrounds, either rectangular or irregular in shape. These backgrounds were usually of light blue-green or brown tint. Thus, if any of the 500 Audubon octavo prints has a colored background, and is not included on the list above, it is not 1 st edition. Another distinguishing factor of the background is how it was produced. In 2 nd and later editions, the colored backgrounds are printed using a second lithographic stone. Therefore, their appearance, under magnification, is more regular and continuous, although sometimes they carry a ‘blotchy’ appearance. Hand painted 1 st edition backgrounds are only present on prints in Table 1 and are often verifiable as such, under magnification. Look for irregular coloring, brush strokes and other indications of hand application. The darker backgrounds of the first edition, were printed using an irregular stippling of black dots overlaid with hand-applied watercoloring. Later edition prints were made with a continuous printed background from a tinted lithographic impression and are typically lighter in overall tone.


Another important distinguishing artifact of 1 st edition octavos is in the font used for the artist and printer credits. In first edition prints, only, prints numbered 151 through 185 and 190 through 500, are printed in italic font. Second and later edition prints all use a block font. By casual inspection of Table 1, most of the first edition prints on this list fall into the category having italic credits. Thus, for these prints, there are multiple means to discern a first edition print.

Another distinguishing factor for first edition prints applies only to prints 136 through 150, in the first edition. The printer’s credit on these prints reads “Lith. & Printed by Endicott New York”. Other first edition and later edition prints credit Bowen of Philadelphia (or others, or none at all).

One additional method for verifying a first edition print is by direct comparison. Second and later edition prints often contain different backgrounds or other details not present in 1 st edition prints. This happened as stones were replaced or as general updating for a new edition occurred. First edition octavo reproductions, printed by Volair and Thunder Bay Press, give visual documentation to several 1 st edition sets. Likewise, Wellfleet, published a complete reproduction of a later Octavo edition (edition unstated, but potentially 1870-71 Lockwood).

Now, here come the caveats. It seems there are no perfect absolutes in Audubon octavo prints. Lithographic stones were updated and replaced throughout the production of the editions as they broke, wore out, or were found to be inaccurate. Thus, several ‘states’ of a given plate may be present within a single edition! It appears the publishers (or binders) may have mixed plates between several editions as over-runs or remainders from one edition were used to supply the next. There are no records of these events, but reliable sources have documented different print states within the various editions, especially the first. So, there are no ironclads, but the methods discussed in this article should prove to contain the vast majority of cases encountered with genuine Audubon Birds of America royal octavo prints.



  • Audubon, John James, Audubon’s Birds of America Containing All of the Original Plates from the First Royal Octavo Edition, Thunder Bay Press, San Diego, 1994.
  • Audubon, John James, The Complete Audubon, Volumes I-IV, National Audubon Society & Volair Books, 1979.
  • Audubon, John James, Audubon’s Birds of North America, The Wellfleet Press, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1990.
  • Braun, Robert, Identifying Audubon Bird Prints, American Historical Print Collector’s Society, Fairfield, Connecticut, 2001.
  • Steiner, Bill, Audubon Art Prints: A Collector’s Guide to Every Edition, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 2003.
  • Tyler, Ron, Audubon’s Great National Work: The Royal Octavo Edition of the Birds of America, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1993.

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