What is ‘The Birds of America’?

What is The Birds of America?

‘The Birds of America’ by ornithologist and artist John James Audubon (1785-1851) was first published in full in 1827. With 435 hand-colored plates, the completed work is one of the largest and most expensive publications ever. From the colorful spoonbills along the waterfront, the yellow-green parakeets between the leaves and the woodpeckers in a tree, the lifelike birds seem to fly right off the page. 

Even as a boy, Audubon was obsessed by birds. He said: “I felt an intimacy with them… bordering on frenzy.” His fascination covered every aspect of the birds’ appearance and habits – from their movements and plumage to their migration and nesting habits. 

Havell Edition or Double Elephant Folio

When creating his masterpiece, Audubon was determined to represent each bird with a true life-size drawing. As a result, each plate measured around 39.5 inches tall by 28.5 inches wide (100 x 67 cm). With larger birds, such as the flamingo or the heron, this often meant contorting the specimen into particular positions with necks bent down, as though hunting or feeding. The collection also includes six birds which are now extinct.

The original edition of Birds of America was printed on handmade paper using copperplate etching, engraving and aquatint techniques with color applied by a large team of colorists. The original edition is sometimes called the Havell Edition after its printer or the ‘Double Elephant Folio’ in reference to its size.

Most expensive published book

In March 2000, a copy of Birds of America sold at auction at Christie’s for $8.8 million, setting a new record for the sale of any book at auction. Since then, a complete copy of the first edition sold at Sotheby’s for over $11 million. 

From the tiny goldfinch to the imposing vulture; Audubon’s collection captures the unique character of each bird, making his work just as popular today as it was when first published.

Teylers Museum

On 26th August 1833 Victor Gifford Audubon sold a complete set of the Birds of America to the Teylers Museum in Haarlem. Thanks to the cooperation with Teylers Museum, Heritage Prints has direct access to the set of the original engravings held by the museum.