Copies of the elephant folio version “The Birds of America” by John James Audubon are very rare. The Library of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia was a subscriber to the original edition of this mighty work. And you can see it whenever the Library is open, which is almost every working day!
I visited the Academy last week. At 3 pm, it was announced that the daily page turning was about to take place. The folio rests in a climate controlled cabinet. Each day at 3:15, it is opened and a Library employee wearing white gloves turns a page so a new print can be appreciated. To me, there’s something magical about a really old book, especially one that is in such lovely condition.
I was not the only spectator for the page turning. I chatted with another guest and also the employee who turned the page. He was not well informed about the bird revealed (a gallinule), being a historian rather than an ornithologist, but he willingly went on line to check when I asked him if the folio included a picture of the black vulture, the newest bird on my (non-existent) life list. Yes, Audubon painted my favorite scavenger.
Turning one page each working day means the entire collection of 435 prints can be viewed in about two years. Not more than 200 copies of the elephant folio were produced, and 119 can now be accounted for. Thirteen are in private hands. The value of a complete set is about $12,000,000, but they are seldom sold.
What makes this book so wonderful? There’s the artistry. The plates were produced by copper etching and aquatint, followed by hand application of water color. They are detailed and very beautiful. The birds look alive, although they were painted from skins and mounted specimens.
Audubon later produced smaller prints of the original works, and now, of course, all is available digitally on line. But there’s nothing quite like gazing at the old, fragile pages and enjoying their color and detail. Go and see this treasure! It is breathtaking.