The Complete Audubon – HistoryMiami puts the spotlight where it belongs


The folio was originally bound in the 1800s, then trimmed and rebound around 1900. According to Fries (The Double Elephant Folio, pp. 287-288), ownership of the folio can be traced to a 1935 sale at American Art Association (a New York auction gallery). The purchaser was Duncan H. Read of Virginia; Fries lists the price at $5,750.

Wall plaque giving the backstory for HistoryMiami's folio.

Wall plaque giving the backstory for HistoryMiami’s folio.

Read eventually lent his folio to the National Audubon Society (NAS) which displayed it at their headquarters until they acquired another copy by donation in 1957; according to a New York Times article (circa 1985), artist and naturalist Roger Tory Peterson was among those who examined the folio while it was at NAS. In 1958, the folio was purchased by Mitchell Wolfson, Sr. at a London auction; it was subsequently displayed by the Mitchell Wolfson Foundation at the Audubon House in Key West, Florida. In May 1977, the folio was stolen by burglars from the Audubon House. Remarkably, one volume was found by authorities two weeks later in a car on the New Jersey Turnpike; the FBI recovered the remaining volumes in North Carolina a short time later. The folio was thereafter kept in secure storage until it was purchased in 1981 by HistoryMiami (then the Historical Museum of Southern Florida). Mitchell Wolfson Jr. helped facilitate the purchase through a generous donation of stock.

The museum received two large grants in 1986 to conserve and restore the set; the work was done by the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) over the next two years. The set was disbound for conservation, and after consultation with NEDCC, HistoryMiami decided not to have it rebound. Instead, the individual prints were matted using acid-free museum mounting board to facilitate framing and display. When not on display, the matted prints are stored unframed in drawers in a high security climate-controlled area. The matting provides a safe environment for storage and helps to prevent accidental damage due to handling.

PL 351 Great Cinereous Owl

PL 351 Great Cinereous Owl. “Cinereous” means ashy grey; the bird is now known as the Grey Owl.

The last major Audubon show at HistoryMiami was in 1988 (right after the completion of the conservation). It featured 95 prints, and focused on Audubon’s trips to Florida. Since then, HistoryMiami has had a rotating display of six to eight Audubon prints at any given time. The future of the exhibition after it closes is as yet undetermined; it may appear at other institutions should they be able to meet the security and environmental challenges of such a large exhibition. The museum plans to redesign and renovate its storage and permanent display spaces for the folio, so at some point in the future the rotating exhibition will begin again.

Roseate Spoonbill

PL 321 Roseate Spoonbill. Some have speculated that the bird is the work of George Lehman, one of Audubon’s assistants. The background landscape has variously been attributed to Lehman and Robert Havell.


One of the outstanding characteristics of this exhibition is the unprecedented access it provides to the prints. As foresightful as was the plentiful supply of magnifiers for visitors to borrow, and the hanging of large numbers of prints low on the wall, most people will lack good visual access to at least half of the prints. In the great majority of cases, this could not be helped: wall space is of course limited. Nevertheless, there is room to question at least some of the specific choices. For instance, the set includes a rare and interesting state of PL 2 Yellow-billed Cuckoo, one that includes hand-written calligraphy in the title. Most visitors are unlikely to notice the calligraphy because the print is hung too high on the wall. I also noticed that some of the most iconic prints were high on the wall with nothing below them (e.g., the Fish Hawk and the Snowy Owl). It might be desirable to revisit the question of hanging during the exhibition to improve access.

Plates 81 to 85 from the 17th number

The five prints that make up the 17th number. Left, PL 81 Fish Hawk (large image). Clockwise from center top, PL 83 House Wren (small image), PL 84 Blue Grey Flycatcher (small image), PL 82 Whip-poor-will (medium image), and PL 85 Yellow Throat Warbler (small image).


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