Thursday, April 26, 2012


Robin's nest with two eggs at island ferry terminal entry,
observed by Atlas Beneda and Mack Ellefson.

Washington Island, Wisconsin -   

How do eggs hatch if the mother is off the nest for long periods of time?   We're about to find out.  This smoker's kit near the west entry of the ferry terminal may have been a secure place to build a nest, but its location means foot traffic passing nearby approximately ten hours each day.   So far, we've not once observed mother robin.

Today is the birthday of John J. Audubon, and in observing his birthday I reprint here the flyer sent to C. H. Thordarson, collector of books on nature, science and English literature during his lifetime.  Thordarson was solicited as a very active and interested collector for a set of Audubon folios, books that are approximately two feet wide by three feet high.  Engravings were made in Europe that reproduced Audubon's life size renderings of American birds, which were then hand-colored. 

From a prospectus sent to Thordarson by book dealer Walter Hill on Sept. 20, 1913:  

AUDUBON (J.)        BIRDS OF AMERICA.    The Genuine Original Edition, Complete Set, containing 435 superbly coloured plates engraved by W.  H. Lizars or R. Havell &  Son, from drawings by AUDUBON.

4 vols. double elephant folio.  Fine set in contemporary full red morocco, g. e. 1827-1839.        $3250.00

The 435 plates in this Magnificent Work, illustrate 1065 species of birds – all delineated in their natural size and colours.   Cuview expressed the opinion that this work “is the most magnificent monument that art has ever erected in Ornithology.”

Everyone who attempts to describe the plumage of a bird, realizes how inadequate language is to convey a just idea of the richness and peculiar beauty of Nature’s living tints.
Each plate is one of the original copper-plates engraved in London and accurately colored by hand by W. H. Lizars or R. Havell and Son;  their extreme beauty makes them particularly desirable for mural decoration, and their rarity tends to make them exclusive possessions.  

“There has never been a keener eye than Audubon’s” says “Old John” Burroughs, and these plates in their unparalleled beauty, accuracy and spirit, prove it.  They form size 38 x 25 ½.   The plate-mark, or the size of the picture itself, necessarily varies, as the birds are in all cases represented of the size of life.  They must not be confounded with the copies made in 1861 by lithography, which are not in the slightest degree worthy of comparison with originals.

It may be noted that this is an extraordinary opportunity for the buyer and one which may not occur again.
A complete set of the work sold at auction for over $4,000.00

When Thordarson purchased this distinctive set, he added to the many rare and unusual books already in his library.  He collected up to the time of his death, a count that approached 11,000 by 1945.  These books were housed in special book cases, custom built for his collection in his Chicago office.  Later, in 1942, he transferred those cases and his library to his Rock Island boathouse where they remained until 1946. 

One reason for their removal to Rock Island was that Thordarson believed his books would be safer on Rock Island in time of war, should German bombing of Chicago become a threat.  Second, and maybe as practical a reason, was that the Thordarson Electric Manufacturing Company was bought out by the Burgess Company at that time.   His office items and files were moved to the basement of his factory, but the books and carved furniture were moved to Rock Island boathouse, a structure he believed to  be nearly fireproof, for safekeeping his books.

Following Thordarson's death in 1945, the University of Wisconsin entered into an Agreement to Purchase with the Thordarson heirs, and with that agreement in hand, the books were moved to Madison for their protection, complete inventory, and contemplation of how they would be incorporated into the library system.  This move also bought time for gaining additional university support and the arrangement of funding.  

The Thordarson library was ferried from Rock Island to Gills Rock by the Griffin, then by truck to Madison, where it then resided in the crowded old library building, now home of the Wisconsin State Historical Society.  A new university library was built in 1950, and the books were moved into the new building.  Volumes from the Thordarson library, selected books from that library that included the Audubon folios, formed the basis of the university's new rare book collection, kept in a carefully controlled environment.  Other volumes not considered rare were set out on shelves with other library books for borrowing.   

University officials stated at the time of their purchase that the value of the Thordarson collection was in scholarly research, and it was not intended as an investment.   But in fact, the value of his collection, with many individual volumes considered among the finest and rarest examples of early English language books in this country if not in the world, has appreciated considerably.  

Perhaps the most valuable among them are the Audubon folios.  

The entire Thordarson collection was purchased by the University of Wisconsin in 1946 for $170,000, plus a broker's fee of $30,000.   According to an internet auction source, an original Audubon folio set fetched $8,800,000 in 2000, and a single engraving brought $150,000.  By 2011, the auction sale of a "rare double-elephant folio"set had risen to a record $11,500,000 and a single print may now command $200,000.

The dear price of a set of Audubon's books today is supposedly a good thing, in that owners and dealers will be less inclined to sell plates separately, something that had been done in past years.  Also, most copies now reside in institutions, such at the University of Wisconsin rare books collection, where they will presumably remain intact for future centuries.

-  Dick Purinton     

1 comment:

Noel Ryder said...

Wonderful accounting of such a rare collection. Tom Jessen had once described the Audubon plates to me, and this is a great story to fill in the gaps.