At Christies Fantasy takes Flight
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...."