Do You Really Own A 1st Edition Octavo Quad Print?

by Ron Flynn 

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Are you certain that your 1st edition Audubon octavo quadruped print is really 1st edition? For years dealers have been selling 1st edition octavo quad prints at a hefty premium over later edition prints. When it comes to collecting, most buyers prefer 1st edition items, and are willing to pay a premium for them. But, are ALL the Audubon octavo quad prints sold as 1st edition, really 1st edition?

What happens when the time comes to sell your 1st edition octavo quad print? A Certificate Of Authenticity (COA) or a title page from a Volume (original or copy) is worthless. COAs are fine as assurance that your print is an original Audubon. They are especially nice to have when you give a print as a gift. However, in the case of the octavo quads they are no guarantee of edition. Any buyer is going to want to personally examine any print before purchasing it. What if the buyer says that your print is 2nd, 3rd or 4th edition, and refuses to pay you for a 1st edition print? Virtually ALL 1st-4th edition Audubon octavo quad prints are identical, except for text differences. I talked to some dealers who believe they can detect 4th edition prints by differences in the paper and quality of hand coloring.  However, the paper and images of individual 1st-3rd edition prints are identical, and editions of individual prints cannot be distinguished.

New discoveries in the past few years have begun to cast doubt as to the genuineness and authenticity of octavo quad prints sold as 1st edition. First, numerous prints “lithographed and colored by Nagel & Weingaertner (N&W) of New York” have been found in Volume I of 3rd and 4th edition octavo quad sets. Second, there exist seemingly inordinate numbers of octavo quad sets, with 1849 dated title pages for Volume I, that are called and sold as 1st edition. If the significance of these discoveries and observations is not immediately apparent to you, they will be explained below.

How Are Editions Determined? -

The American Historical Print Collectors Society (AHPCS) is probably the recognized authority on antique prints. Their definition of edition reads - “An edition of a print includes all the impressions published at the same time, or as part of the same publishing event. A first edition print is one, which was issued with the first published group of impressions. First edition prints are sometimes pre-dated by a proof edition. Editions of a print should be distinguished from “states” of a print.” I have always disagreed with this definition as it applies to what the Audubons did 150+ years ago.

As with all previous Audubon publications, the Quadrupeds of North America was sold by subscription. There were 155 different plates usually bound into three volumes. It is generally said that the 1st edition was published from 1849-1854. The second edition was published from 1852-1855, and the 3rd edition in 1856. Finally, the Lockwoods published the 4th edition in 1870. You can see that the 1st and 2nd editions overlapped, and this is where the AHPCS’s definition and today’s perceptions of the Audubon “editions” conflicts with what the Audubons did.

The Audubon Operation -

The Audubons were businessmen, and their main goal was to sell prints and make money. Author Bill Steiner, in the Yahoo Audubonprints Group, wrote in effect that the Audubons didn't give a fig about state or edition, but just wanted to sell 'em and get 'em out. I agree. I think that the Audubons either didn’t know or didn’t care about editions of their publications, and defining them for the AHPCS and today’s market. Bill also wrote about how the Audubons must have used some sort of storage system for their prints. I can’t remember if he used the word cubbyhole, but I will. The Audubons probably had something like a cubbyhole storage system where new plates, text pages and title pages were put when they came in from printers and lithographers. These same cubbyholes were used to fill orders as they came in. I don’t believe that anyone today thinks that the Audubons personally participated in the day-to-day stocking of the cubbyholes and filling subscription orders. It is more likely that an unskilled or semi-skilled employee did this work.

Remember, the octavo quads were being sold by subscription. They did not sell thousands of subscriptions all at once in 1849, or even in the first few years of production. In a subscription sales type of operation the Audubons could not foresee how many plates would be sold. Subscriptions came in over many years, and the Audubons sold octavo quad prints from 1849 until probably the outbreak of the Civil War. The Audubons would have initially ordered plates and pages in smaller quantities. New plates and pages would be reordered as needed. We don’t know who printed the letterpress. The letterpress consisted of the text pages for each animal, plus title pages, subscriber lists, etc. The letterpress was printed on inexpensive paper for a relatively low cost, and could have been ordered initially in larger quantities than the plates. The hand colored plates were the most expensive item for the Audubons, and undoubtedly were ordered in smaller quantities from the lithographers.

We do know that the Audubons first hired the firm of Nagel & Weingaertner (N&W) of New York as lithographers to print and hand color the octavo quad plates. From observations of octavo quad volumes over many years, we know that N&W produced an unknown number of plates #1-#26 and #29-#31, for Volume I, out of the 155 different plates ultimately produced. The N&W credit appears at the lower right corner of each plate they printed. At some point, the Audubons replaced the N&W firm with J.T.Bowen of Philadelphia. The Bowen firm lithographed and hand colored all subsequent octavo quad plates, including plates #1-#26 and #29-#31, through the Lockwood 4th edition in 1870.

I have seen no research that indicates that the Audubons designated a specific end to the 1st edition in 1851-52, and declared the beginning of the 2nd edition, which would meet the AHPCS definition. In 1851-52, the Audubons had finished the first 50 plates that would become Volume I of the publication, and were shipping them out to subscribers. They would have just started working on, and sending out, the next 50 plates for Volume II. Also, I’m certain that the Audubons wouldn’t have built a separate cubbyhole storage system to separate 1st and 2nd edition plates and pages, when they were all virtually identical. Instead, the Audubon operation was a continuous printmaking production. As new plates and pages from the printers and lithographers came in, they were placed in their appropriate cubbyhole. When subscription orders came in, the plates and pages were plucked from the cubbyholes and shipped out to fill the subscription orders. This operation churned on, without regard for editions, until all 155 plates had been completed. Apparently common sense or reason came to the Audubons in 1856, when they ended the confusion and issued title pages, for all three Volumes, with the 1856 date, although the plates and letterpress pages remained the same. They continued publishing octavo  prints probably until the health of J.J. Audubon’s sons, John W. and Victor G,. began declining and the Civil War broke out.

During all these years, the plates and text pages basically never changed. The only thing that changed was the dates on the title pages.  I’m sure the Audubons ordered an ample number of title pages dated 1849 for their first 50 plates. When 1851-52 came along, the Audubons ordered dated title pages for their next 50 plates, plus new dated title pages for the first 50 plates. From 1851-1856, there were dated title pages for virtually each year for Volumes I and II. All Volume III title pages were dated 1854, 1855 or 1856. From 1856 on, all title pages for all three Audubon octavo quad Volumes had the 1856 date. It was not the Audubons who thought of 1st, 2nd and 3rd editions, while they used the same lithographic stones to produce the 155 different plates for all those years. The idea of 1st, 2nd and 3rd editions of the Audubon octavo quad publications came later, to either the subscribers who received them or the “dealers of the day” who resold them.

Today, three-volume sets of the octavo quads exist with various combinations of title page dates. It is these title page dates that dealers use to determine which edition the prints are from, even though ALL the prints produced from 1849-1870 were printed using the same lithographic stones (with exceptions for retooling or replacing broken stones), and were ALL hand colored by the J.T. Bowen firm (with the exception of the early N&W prints). It is generally accepted that a three-volume set with title page dates of 1849-1851-1854 is a 1st edition set. However, there are relatively few of these, and many many more three-volume sets with other title page date combinations up to 1855-1855-1855. Beyond those dates, we generally say that three-volume sets dated 1856-1856-1856 are 3rd edition, and those dated 1870-1870-1870 are the 4th edition published by the Lockwoods.

What combination of title page dates is a true 2nd edition? Perhaps it is 1852-1855-1855, though I have never seen or heard of a set with that combination. Virtually everyone in the business acknowledges that the vast majority of early octavo quad sets are mixed 1st and 2nd edition. Is a Volume I title page dated 1849 the key? Is a three-volume set dated 1849-1852-1854 or 1849-1854-1854 a 1st edition set? What about 1849-1852-1855 or 1849-1854-1855? The fact is that if these sets were offered at auction, they would be listed as mixed edition. The problem arises for collectors when a dealer buys one of these mixed sets and starts selling the individual prints. Does the dealer sell ALL the prints as 1st edition, and earn a hefty premium? I think the answer in virtually all cases is YES! I have never seen a dealer selling Volume I prints as 1st edition, and selling the Volume II and III prints as later edition. The vast majority of upper tier octavo quad prints are in Volumes II and III. I’m sure there are dealers around who have original octavo quad title pages with 1849-1851-1854 dates. They could show these to customers and say that whatever prints are being sold are 1st edition. Perhaps my proposal at the end of this article might solve this problem?

First In, Last Out? 

So far, all of the above is based on known facts and some common sense suppositions. I believe few, if any, would disagree with what has been put forth so far. I have another theory, which will explain the N&W print occurrences mentioned in the 3rd paragraph of this article, and will cast further doubt on which octavo quad prints are truly 1st edition.

Anyone familiar with the stocking and rotating of merchandise, especially fresh produce and food, knows that the older items go in the front or on top, and the newer/fresher items go in the back or on the bottom. It is my belief that when hand colored plates and printed letterpress came into the Audubon’s shop, an employee would have been charged with the job of restocking the cubbyholes. Since the plates for each cubbyhole looked the same as the remaining plates in a particular cubbyhole, I believe the employee simply put the new plates on top of the old. As long as they matched, he didn’t care. Maybe the Audubons knew about it and didn’t care either. The same was true for the letterpress pages. The new ones could just as easily been put on top of the old pages in the right cubbyhole. “First in and last out.”

A “first in and last out” method of restocking the Audubon cubbyholes would have worked fine. There was no problem with freshness or spoilage of the sheets. All the text pages and all the plate images were the same, except… The printed credit line on the lower right corner changed from N&W to Bowen at some point for 29 of the first 50 plates. I believe that the newer Bowen plates were put on top of the older N&W plates in the cubbyholes. This would account for the numerous  reports of finding one or more N&W plates in bound Volumes I, that are dated 1856 and 1870. I have personally seen three different 1870 Volume I books. Two of the books each had 2 N&W plates bound into them. The third 1870 set had four N&W plates bound into Volume I. One dealer reported that he found 12 N&W prints in an 1870 Volume I book. I believe these reports and personal observations prove the “first in and last out” theory.

Though the letterpress text pages never changed for each animal, the dated title pages did change from time to time. The Volume number (I-III) and other information remained the same, but the actual date on the title page would change. During the period from 1851-1855, I believe that to some degree the title pages for Volumes I-III were subject to the “first in and last out” theory. I also believe that initially the Audubons ordered an inordinately large number of Volume I title pages with the 1849 date. To further confuse and cast doubt on which octavo quad prints were actually 1st edition, I believe that the 1849 dated title pages were also "first in and last out" beginning in 1851-52 and continuing until 1855. One dealer reported having a Volume I dated 1851 with all 29 N&W plates, while another dealer had a Volume I dated 1849 and all 50 plates were from Bowen. If there was any indication that the Audubons cared or knew about editions, it would have been in the 1851-52 period when a supposed 2nd edition began to be published simultaneously with the publication of the1st edition.

A few months ago I did an online survey looking for 1st-2nd edition Audubon octavo quad sets for sale at antiquarian bookstores, and owned by museums, institutions, etc. I continued searching until I had found 50 sets. For the first 50 1st-2nd edition sets I found, I recorded the title page date for each of the three Volumes in each set. Of the 50 sets found only 8 had title page dates of 1849-1851-1854, which many would consider true 1st edition. However, of the 50 sets surveyed, 28 sets had a Volume I title page dated 1849. Eleven of the 50 sets had title page dates of 1849-1854-1854. The remaining sets had various other combinations of title page dates. It is significant to note that only 8 of 50 sets had a Volume II title page date of 1851.

Conclusions –

Looking back at what the Audubons produced 150 years or so- ago, perhaps we can say that the production of the Quadrupeds of North America was slipshod and confusing. The plates were wonderful and the text pages about the animals (Bachman) were superb, but the execution, delivery and labeling of the editions/volumes was confusing at best. Perhaps this was due to the fact that John James Audubon did not take part at all in this publication? Maybe his sons, John W. and Victor G., were not the businessmen that J.J.A. was?

With the documented appearance of early N&W plates in later volumes, it seems certain that a “first in and last out” policy applied to the various octavo quad plates. This would have been true for all 155 plates. With ALL plates in ALL “editions” (except for N&W plates), from 1849-1870 being basically identical, I don’t believe that anyone today can distinguish and state with certainty that any octavo quad plate, whether in a bound volume or dis-bound, belongs to a specific edition (especially 1st).

Dealers who break octavo quad sets and sell off the individual plates tend to sell the entire octavo quad set, as “1st edition” if the Volume I title page is dated 1849. The advantage to a dealer doing this is that most of the best upper tier plates are in Volumes II and III, and the dealer can earn up to a 20% premium on all prints sold as 1st edition. There were seemingly an inordinately large number of 1849 dated Volume I title pages. Considering the above, plus the high probability that Audubon octavo quad title pages were also “first in and last out” items, I don’t believe that title page dates can be used to claim that an entire three-volume set, or even a single volume, is 1st edition.

Therefore, in all fairness to collectors, I propose that ALL Audubon Quadrupeds of North America prints NO LONGER be sold by edition. I propose that ALL premiums charged for 1st edition prints be eliminated. Since ALL octavo quad prints (except different states) are virtually identical and indistinguishable, they should be priced equally, print-by-print, with allowances for condition.

We know for sure that the Nagel and Weingaertner (N&W) firm was hired first by the Audubons. Therefore, the plates produced by N&W were produced first (prior to Bowen) and are the ONLY octavo quad prints that can be truly recognized and identified as 1st edition prints. I propose that ALL octavo quad prints with the N&W credit be treated as 1st edition, and that a 10%-20% premium be charged for prints with this credit, no matter what the date of the Volume title page it is found in.

I would reject anyone’s claims that the N&W prints are inferior to prints done by Bowen. In early 2004, I owned over 70 Audubon octavo quad prints. Of the 70+ prints, 15 of them were N&W prints. Of the 15 N&W prints that I owned, I had 10 N&W and Bowen prints for the same animal/mammal. I carefully compared the quality of the N&W and Bowen prints, and could find NO evidence that the N&W prints were inferior in quality. In fact, comparing the N&W and Bowen plate #22, grey rabbit, I found that the N&W plate #22 was superior to the Bowen plate; in particular the detail of the objects in the soil in the foreground was better in the N&W print.  

If dealers continue to charge a premium for 1st edition octavo quad prints, I suggest that collectors ignore edition and buy the best print from any "edition" that they can afford. Already, octavo quad print prices have declined noticeably over the past year or so, especially prints in Volumes II and III listed as 1st edition.


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