Certificates of Authenticity – are they for real?

When selling original Audubon prints, some dealers include a Certificate of Authenticity (often abbreviated COA). These certificates generally list the name of the print and provide the dealer’s guarantee that the print is indeed an original print from the appropriate publication. The rest is optional. Most COAs I’ve seen are of the “fill-in-the-blank” type, including some interesting but general text with the specific name of the plate filled in.

When I first started selling prints in 2001, I felt that COAs were not necessary since Audubon’s prints were “self-proving” — if you knew enough about the characteristics the original should have, you could identify original prints with accuracy. There might be difficulties identifying a specific edition (e.g., a later edition octavo bird print might be from any of a number of later editions), but you could certainly say that the print was original and was of a certain type (e.g., octavo edition, Havell Edition, Imperial Folio Edition).  Certificates seemed to imply some kind of objective certification, which of course is never the case. A certificate is only as reliable as the person who sold the print. I wrote COAs, but only upon request and only after explaining that there was nobody but me to judge that what I was saying was true.

After a few years, I came to realize that people might enjoy some of the extra information I could include in a COA. It was an opportunity to educate them about what they were buying, and even more importantly (assuming the COA was kept with the print) a COA could educate anyone who might acquire the print later, whether as a gift or a purchase or through inheritance. After all, these old pieces of paper outlasted their first owners, and with luck they can outlast successive owners. The presence of a COA could prevent a print from being discarded as “trash” down the road. I therefore began to include COAs with every Audubon print I sold. My first COAs included a nice portrait of Audubon, some boilerplate text, and a short paragraph specific to the plate.

Over time, I began to realize that I had more to say about many of the plates. In order to expand the text, I dropped the Audubon portrait. Now my typical COA runs about 400 to 600 words. The first few paragraphs are standard with only minor changes from print to print; this part provides background about the edition. The rest of the essay is specific to the print, perhaps including information about the animal or bird or placing the work in the context of the artist’s life. Often for octavo edition prints (which come with the original text or a reprint of the text describing the bird or animal), I include a quote from Audubon’s writing. Below is an excerpt of the text from a certificate I recently wrote for PL 77 AUDUBON’S WOOD-WARBLER from the first octavo edition.

First octavo edition Plate 77 Audubon's Wood-WarblerWhat’s in a name?  To Audubon – a man who craved recognition and acceptance from the naturalists of his time — it must have been a thrill to have John Kirk Townsend name a newly discovered western warbler species for him in 1836.  It was the first time Audubon had ever been honored in this way. Townsend described and named the bird in a paper given before the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Under binomial nomenclature, new species are given two-part names, each part using Latin grammatical forms, although they may be based on words from other languages. The first part of the name refers to the genus to which the species belongs, the second part is specific to the species. Hence Townsend named the bird Sylvia Audubonii, Sylvia being at the time the genus most commonly used for warblers.

Taxonomy is always in a state of flux as new knowledge leads to changes in classification: hence Audubon’s Warbler, afforded the scientific name Sylvia audubonii in the Havell Edition, appeared in the octavo edition just a few years later as Sylvicola audubonii.  New tools have resulted in an acceleration of changes to taxonomic classifications as DNA and other studies produce new information on the similarities and differences between species. Audubon’s Warbler lost its status as a separate species in 1973 when it was found to hybridize with another bird, the Myrtle Warbler (illustrated in the octavo edition in PL 76 YELLOW-CROWNED WOOD-WARBLER or Sylvia coronata). The two birds were reclassified as subspecies of the Yellow-rumped Warbler (known until recently as Dedroica coronata), with Audubon’s Warbler more common in western North America, the Myrtle more common in eastern North America, and the hybridization occurring in the southern Canadian Rockies. Very recent discoveries have led to more changes in the scientific names, as these and the other subspecies of the Yellow-rumped Warbler were moved from the genus Dendroica to the genus Setophaga.

Audubon himself was aware of the similarities between Sylvia audubonii and Sylvia coronata. Thus he opened his account of Audubon’s Warbler by saying, “This species, so very intimately allied to Sylvia coronata, that an observer might readily mistake the one for the other, was discovered by Mr. TOWNSEND, who has done me the honour of naming it after me.”