Tireless search leads to lost treasure

Posted August 3rd, 2010 by kcorliss. Comment (0).

John James Audubon is highly esteemed among bird illustrators and is largely regarded as the father of bird art. His huge collection of prints remain stunning to this day.

Apparently, though, his first engraving was lost and unaccounted for according to this story (from PR Newswire)

In 1824, John James Audubon (1785-1851), the eminent American artist, created a drawing of a running grouse for use in the design for a New Jersey bank note. Although the artist mentions the drawing and the resulting engraved paper money in two separate diary entries, no one has ever been able to locate or identify such an illustration.

Now, after a decade-long search by an Audubon scholar from Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences and a numismatic historian from St. Louis, Audubon’s first published illustration of a bird has been discovered. In a forthcoming article in the Journal of the Early Republic, Robert M. Peck, curator of art at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Eric Newman, an authority on American money, reveal their discovery and explain how Audubon’s entry into the world of commerce took place. The find is important not only for solving the puzzle of the missing engraving, but also because it illustrates Audubon’s development as an artist and provides a rare, contemporary view of the now extinct Heath Hen, a subspecies of running grouse.

Several of Audubon’s biographers searched in vain for the bank note Audubon mentioned. Unable to find the evidence of Audubon’s claim, some scholars have dismissed it as a red herring, invented by Audubon (a frequent embellisher of his own achievements) to burnish his reputation in the lean years before publishing his landmark book, The Birds of America.

It will be interesting to see this. And this story kind of reminds me of that Nicholas Cage movie, National Treasure.

I don’t know why the author of this piece uses the phrase “running grouse.” The heath hen was a subspecies of the greater prairie chicken.

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