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John James Audubon - Birds of America

John James Audubon
The Birds of America from Drawings Made in the United States & their Territories 

First Royal Octavo Edition/Second Octavo Edition

Published Philadelphia, John T. Bowen 1839-1844

Hand Colored Stone Lithographs

Size: 6 ½” by 10 ½”

John James Audubon (1785 – 1851) is well known for being a naturalist and ornithologist but he is most famous for his monumental work “The Birds of America”, published in London in parts in the years 1827 – 1839.  Birds of America included 435 hand colored, etched copper plate engravings in double elephant folio (DEF) size of 27 ½” by 39 ½”, the largest paper size available at the time.  Birds of America was sold by subscription and delivered in parts that upon completion would typically be bound by the subscriber in 4 volumes.

Before Audubon even completed his final painting for the DEF he had conceived the idea of a miniature edition of Birds of America, in octavo size (6 ½” by 10 ½”), or roughly one eighth the size of the DEF.  The subsequent Royal Octavo Edition was first published in the years 1839 – 1844, and again sold by subscription. The Royal Octavo edition was subscribed to and sold originally in 100 installments or fascicles, each consisting of 5 hand colored lithographic plates and corresponding text.  Each fascicle included a list of subscribers and the prospectus.

The First Royal Octavo Edition was so successful that 6 more editions followed, the last published in 1871.  However, the Octavo was much more than just the DEF in miniature.  It included 500 plates published in Philadelphia as hand colored lithographs.  The plates included many new birds but also reworked plates from the DEF.  The Birds of America DEF included many plates with multiple species, in the Octavo edition Audubon included just one species per plate. Audubon also simplified many of the backgrounds for the Octavo edition due to the much smaller size of the paper.  In addition to reworking the plates the Royal Octavo Edition was organized by Genus and Species, therefore the plate numbers of the Octavos do not correspond directly to the DEF. 

Original DEF Audubon antique prints are scarce, less than 170 complete sets were sold, and therefore quite expensive.  The most desirable images sell for over $100,000 in galleries while the least desirable plates still sell for several thousand dollars.  As a result we should be very grateful to Audubon for conceiving the idea of the Octavo edition, which is really the only realistic opportunity for most collectors to afford his work.  The more expensive of the First Edition Octavo lithographs are still under $10,000 with most still selling for much less than $1,000.

The First Royal Octavo edition antique prints are considered more valuable than the 6 subsequent editions for two reasons.  First, it is the only edition with Audubon’s direct involvement.  He became incapacitated by illness in about 1845 and died in 1851.  His sons published the next 3 editions, beginning in 1856.  Second, subsequent editions were also hand colored lithographs with the exception of an added color printed background not found in the first edition.  About 1,200 complete sets of the first edition were published. 

Red House Collection is pleased to offer a small collection of First Royal Octavo Edition original antique prints.  Our antique prints include 30 plates, #’s 1-15, 21-25 & 31 – 40, which are taken directly from an original set of Fascicles, never bound into a completed volume.  Prints 1 through 5 of part 1, as evidenced by the block lettering in the title legends, are probably from the first 300 printed of this first edition.  The prints from fascicle #5, prints 21 through 25, are also probably from the very first printing as evidenced by the incorrect titles of the Pigeon Hawk (falcon on plate), Sparrow Hawk (falcon on plate) and Goshawk (Gos Hawk on the plate).  We also have a selection of Ducks and some song birds, most of which are first edition antique plates removed from bound volumes.  Those 2nd edition prints are of some of the more desireable plates and are in excellent condition as well.  The text and subscriber lists for the Birds of America Octavo edition fascicles are included as available. 
Source: Tyler, Ron – Audubon's Great National Work,  1993.

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Title: Californian Vulture(adult male), Plate 1 Artist: John J. Audubon...
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Title: Black Vulture, or Carrion Crow(male & female), Plate 3 Artist:...
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Title: Broad-Winged Buzzard, (Male & Female) Plate 10 Artist: John J....
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Title: The White-headed Sea Eagle or Bald Eagle (male), Plate 14 Artist:...
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