How do you know if one of those big John James Audubon bird prints is original?

American_FlamingoThe wildly popular large Audubon “Birds of America” prints were originally printed in the 1820s-30s, and have been reprinted many times since, including as everyday posters. Luckily for collectors, identifying the original large prints are surprisingly easy if you know what to look for.

An original large 1820s-30s Audubon “Birds of America” print should have the following four qualities (There are also genuine small (1/8th) size Audubon prints, but this brief essay is only about the jumbo versions):

1) Measure about 26×39 inches if untrimmed. A reprint can be the same size, but an untrimmed odd size is a giveaway a print is a later reprint.

2) A “J Whatman” watermark in the paper. A watermark is best seen when holding the paper up in front of a bright light. Many of today’s computer printer and typing papers have watermarks, so you can practice your looking skills on paper around the house. The Audubon watermarks will say J Whatman and a year of printing below (ala ‘1831’).

It’s possible that if the watermark was at the very edge of the paper and the print was trimmed that the watermark may be missing or obscured. For the potential buyer it’s best to make sure that watermark is in the paper, and leave the “was trimmed off” watermarks for other buyers.

3) Presence of a plate mark. A plate mark is an indentation in the paper that surrounds the printed graphics. Caused by the pressure from the metal printing plate against the paper during printing, it appears only with certain types of printing techniues. Some reproductions might have fake plate marks, but most will have none.

  1. Hand colored colors. The colors on the original large Audubons were painted by hand. Under close examination, this will be apparent. If under a strong magnifying glass, the colors have a fine multicolor dot pattern like on a magazine picture, it’s a later photomechanical reproduction. A small few of reproductions have hand painted colors, but the majority of modern reprints will have the multi-color dot pattern.

If a print has all of the above qualities, it’s near certain that you have an original on your hands. The watermark in particular is a strong sign of originality, as it doesn’t appear on any known reprint sets. As a reproduction can be hand colored, be of the correct size or have a plate mark, remember to check all four qualities and don’t focus on just one.

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