About the Amsterdam Print Edition

The Amsterdam Edition of Audubon’s Birds of America

By Terry Wright

John James Audubon's Birds of America, published 1827-1838, has been called the finest ornithological publication of all time.  It represents the fruition of Audubon’s quest to travel throughout the United States and catalog every species then known. What sets it apart are the vibrant aquatint etchings, life-sized images and realistic postures of the avian subjects. These 435 images, originally produced by Lizars (Edinburgh) and Havell (London), were etched and hand-colored on double elephant folio paper with dimensions of approximately 26.5” x 39.5”. They depict some 1065 individual birds and 489 avian species. Because of its pre-eminence, Audubon’s Birds of America has been much duplicated as facsimiles and reproductions in the ensuing 150+ year period. (Braun distinguishes facsimiles being as-near-to-the-original-as-possible and reproductions as copies of the image, only.) However, most facsimiles have been completed in the past 30 years.

Pre-eminent among facsimile editions is the Amsterdam Edition created by joint efforts of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Amsterdam) and Johnson Reprint Corporation (New York) between 1971 and 1972. The model for this work was an original set of Havell engravings, provided by Teyler’s Museum in Haarlem, Holland, which copy came from their purchase of an original subscription to Birds in America, in 1839. This was the first facsimile edition, after 135 years, to fully recreate the entire set of 435 images in their original double elephant folio format.

This ambitious effort was undertaken to recreate a masterpiece of history and every effort was made to produce the finest publication possible at the time. A pre-eminent set of ornithological experts from the National Audubon Society (Dr. Roger Tory Petereson), Smithsonian (Dr. S. Dillon Ripley), National Museum of Natural History (Dr. George E. Watson), Department of the Interior (Dr. Richard C. Banks) and Amsterdam University, Netherlands (Professor Dr. K.H. Voos) served as editors of this work. The firm of G. Schut & Zonen was commissioned to create a fine woven paper of 100% unbleached cotton rag to match the papers used in the original Havell engravings. Eight color offset lithography, the highest standard of the day, was employed as the printing method by the Dutch firm NV Fotolitho Inrichting Drommel. For all this care, these prints have the look and feel of the original Havell edition engravings.

This edition was limited to 250 sets, published and issued by subscription, with the plates bound or unbound. In 1971, the subscription price was $4500, but recently complete sets have sold for $60,000. Publication of the ‘Amsterdam Edition’ was accompanied in 1972 by the publication of a text volume entitled “A Synopsis of the Birds of North America”, by Johnson Reprint Corp and Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.

Authentification of an Amsterdam print is fairly straightforward, even for a relative novice. Untrimmed prints will measure the full double elephant folio size of 26.5” x 39.5”. The paper will bear the watermark of its maker, G. Schut & Zonen, the word Audubon, and two stylized monograms: “G. Schut & Zonen – R – Audubon – O”, where the ‘R’-monogram represents a combination of the J & R from the Johnson Reprint corporation and the ‘O’-monogram represents the initials TOT from Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. The watermark is approximately 1” tall and repeats along the deckled (unbound) edge of the Amsterdam prints. It is definitive in confirming authenticity. Other indicators can support authentication of Amsterdam prints but are not directly conclusive.

Audubon Print Watermark

Figure 1. Left half of the watermark on authentic Amsterdam prints.

Audubon Print Watermark

Figure 2. Right half of watermark on authentic Amsterdam prints.

Marginalia should be the same as for the Havell edition prints. for most prints, a subscription part number, from 1 through 87 should appear in the upper left corner of the sheet, in Arabic numerals. An image or plate number should appear in Roman numerals (some exceptions in Arabic numerals) on the upper right corner of the sheet, above the image.

Audubon Print Artist Attribution

Figure 3. Attribution to J.J. Audubon (one variation), lower left of sheet. Notice false plate mark impression below attribution.

The Lower left should bear the words ‘Drawn from Nature by J.J. Audubon FRS FLS’ (Sometimes the initials will be spelled out as ‘John James’, and other variations.) The lower right should bear a credit to the engraver, R. Havell (or his son) and this appears in several forms (e.g., ‘Engraved, Printed and Colored by R. Havel, 1835’). A descriptive title with species identification (common and scientific) is usually centered at the bottom of each image and may include identification of flora as well as fauna in the image. In some prints, reference numbers are used, within the image, to identify different species, males versus female of the same species, or juvenile birds. The numbers will be referenced in the plate legend. No other inscriptions should be present on either obverse or reverse sides of the sheet.

Audubon Print Engraver Attribution

Figure 4. Attribution to R. Havell (one variation), lower right of sheet.

Audubon Print Title

Figure 5. Plate Legend. Note references to numbers 1 & 2 which identify male and female of the species, respectively.

Image sizes should be the same as for Havell edition engravings and these are well documented in Susanne Low’s “A Guide to Audubon’s Birds of America”. A false or pseudo plate mark is often observed on these prints, but is also often absent (see Figure 3.)

Finally, under 10x magnification, these images should appear as a fine matrix of multi-colored dots, indicative of the production process used in their making (these would be absent from an original or hand-colored engraving but also present on other modern facsimile editions.)

John James Audubon Print Marginalia

Figure 6. Usual locations of Amsterdam print marginalia.

 

 

References:

Braun, Robert, “Identifying Audubon Bird Prints”, American Historical Print Collectors Society, Fairfield Connecticut, 2001.

Low, Susanne M., “ A Guide to Audubon’s Birds of America”, Wm Reese Co & Donald A. Heald, New Haven & New York, 2002.

Steiner, Bill, “Audubon Art Prints: A Collector’s Guide to Every Edition”, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia S.C, 2003

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

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