Is my Audubon print an original?
AUTHENTICATE AUDUBON ORIGINALS
Probably the most frequent question we are asked is, How can one determine if a print is an authentic Audubon or not? Since the Audubon prints are in the public domain, and not copyrighted, many modern reproduction editions have, properly, reprinted the image with original publisher attributions (i.e. Engraved by...) toward the bottom of the image without mention of the new modern-day publisher. This leads some to think that they have an original, when very often, it is actually a very good reproduction. Without physically seeing your print, we cannot make an absolute determination. However, we are pleased to submit to you this checklist which will take you step by step in a logical sequence to help you make an initial determination if you have an actual Audubon original. To begin, please get a ruler and a magnifying glass...
Please measure your print.
All Audubon originals are one of only three sizes.
The first and most valuable is the original "double elephant folio" edition of the Birds of America. This on average measures 26 1/4" x 39 1/4" trimmed. Sometimes an additional inch or slightly less is trimmed off a longer side, where previous owners may have removed original binding marks.
The second is the "Imperial" edition of the mammals or quadrupeds. This measured 22" x 28" and is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as the "elephant folio" sizing, but more often called the "Imperial" edition.
The third is the "Royal Octavo" or miniature edition of the Birds, and later, the mammals. This edition measures about 6 1/2" x 10 " or 7" x 10 3/4".
If your print does not closely match any of these sizes, taking into consideration trimming, then you most likely have one of the 100's of reproduction editions.
One caution: some of the outer edges of double elephant prints with smaller images have been trimmed by various owners, in order to fit the print into smaller frames.
Next, does your double elephant sized print have a rectangular impression, a border within the paper edges, surrounding the image? On the original prints, this was caused by the edges of the inked copper engraving plates being pressed into the paper, and in doing so leaving a crease.
Not only are these generally visible, but you should be able to feel them as you run your fingers gently from the image to the outer edges of the paper.
These impressions will vary in size, this being determined by the size of the printing plate used for the various sized images. Once again, if your print has been drastically trimmed, this impression may no longer exist.
Larger images may have no visible impression since the copperplates extended almost to the end of the paper. However, also be cautioned that there have been a number of restrikes produced over the years, or prints produced by the original plates that are still in existence. These are not Audubon originals. These restrikes too will show a plate impression.
Further, some modern reproductions also have a false plate mark. However, these can generally be distinguished from originals and restrikes since they have a consistent "feel" on both sides of the impression border. A copperplate pressing into the dampened sheet of paper would "smooth" the paper surface within the impression rectangle on an original, but leave the paper "as is" (not as smooth) outside it.
Appearance under magnification
Now take the magnifying glass and bring into focus several areas on the image itself. Do you see a geometric pattern of dots? If so, yours is a photo offset reproduction, and not an original.
Some reproductions are worth thousands of dollars, but a geometric pattern of dots rules out your print being an original.
Audubon double elephant originals under magnification reveal smooth washes of watercolors, not a pattern of dots. Many times one will even see where the colorists went "outside the lines" of the engraved image with their watercolor brushes. Remember, each Audubon original was individually hand-colored.
Foxing, general appearance of paper
Now, if you have passed the sizing, plate impressions, and dot tests, please examine the print itself. Does it appear, well, old? Remember, the originals are about 175-years-old. Foxing may be evident, there may be soiling, small tears, or other irregularities. A newer reproduction will appear, well, newer.
If unframed, please carefully hold your double elephant print between your eyes and a light source. All untrimmed Audubon double elephant folio Birds of America prints have a very visible countermark. A countermark is similar to what is termed a watermark, but it is without artistic elements, generally simply consisting only of lettering. It will stretch about 10 inches across the paper, being about 1 inch in height. The name of the countermark is either "J Whatman/Turkey Mill" or just "J Whatman" with a date following, generally anywhere from 1825 to 1838. If you see such a countermark, you have an original Audubon. You may want to have it professionally appraised.