Ten Million Dollar Bird Book On Display At Trinity College
By STEVE GRANT
January 03, 2012
One of the finest remaining copies of the extraordinarily rare and enormously valuable "Birds of America" books of avian art by John James Audubon is now showcased for public viewing in the Watkinson Library at Trinity College.
As befits a book that in all likelihood is worth more than $10 million, Audubon's 19th Century masterwork of bird prints is grandly displayed under special lighting in a new, highly secure, custom-made case of glass and steel.
Only 119 copies of the book, published during the 1830s, are known to exist, few of them are available for public viewing. One privately held copy sold at auction in London 11 months ago for $10.5 million, the most ever paid for a book.
"Birds of America" is enormous, about 39 inches high by 29 inches wide, an oversize format Audubon insisted upon to show even the largest American birds life-size. The work, 435 plates in four volumes, was a collaboration between Audubon and Robert Havell, a world-renowned London engraver who painstakingly produced the plates from Audubon's original art. The engravings were hand-painted and the books sold by subscription.
Trinity's copy of the book is especially notable because it is known to be Havell's personal copy. It has only had three owners — Gurdon Wadsworth Russell, an 1834 Trinity graduate, donated it to the college in 1900.
Once kept in a side room and not often viewed, Trinity's Birds of America is now center stage at the Watkinson, which houses one of the nation's fine collections of bird books and art.
Christoph Irmscher, a professor of English at Indiana University and a prominent Audubon scholar, visited Trinity recently and viewed the Audubon display. It was a special moment in art history, he said, when Audubon, one of the first great American painters, teamed with Havell, the great engraver, to produce "the most gorgeous printed book I know."
"Trinity's set is in really great shape, he said. "The binding is in very good condition, and it being Havell's set makes it particularly valuable."
The head curator and librarian at the Watkinson, Richard J. Ring, turns one page to display a different image each week. It will take more than 8 years to show each of the plates. Once every plate has been shown, the plan is to start all over again. This week, Jan. 3-6, the prairie warbler plate is displayed.
Ring said the inspiration for the new, more accessible display was both the considerable publicity when the last copy was auctioned in 2011, and his discovery of a company that produces a custom, secure table ideal to display the series.
"It seemed a good opportunity to put it center stage," Ring said.
In 1977, a professional thief with a knife concealed in a ring stole two plates from the Trinity copy, one of them recovered in Boston a year later. A plate of the flamingo was never recovered. Recently, Trinity acquired another plate of the flamingo at auction.
Trinity tuition dollars were not used to pay for the new display, or the flamingo plate. The college has an endowment specifically for the purchase of ornithological books and art.
Audubon was not only a significant early American artist, but a naturalist of the first order who informed his paintings with a deep knowledge of the habits of American birds and wildlife. Audubon's osprey has a fish in its talons; his pileated woodpeckers search tree bark for insects.
These lifelike poses were revolutionary at the time, and help place each species in context. "Audubon prided himself on basing most of his images on first-hand observation," Irmscher said.
Watkinson head librarian Richard Ring posts a blog entry each week at http://www.watkinsonlibrary.org/ with text by John James Audubon on the bird displayed that week. Click on "The Bibliophile's Lair." The Watkinson is housed within the Raether Library and Information Technology Center, and usually is open Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but hours can vary at times during the academic year. Up-to-date hours of operation are posted on the website; 860-297-2268.. A map of the Trinity campus is available at http://www.trincoll.edu/Admissions/campusvisit/Pages/map.aspx.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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