Rare collection awaiting arrival of familiar birds

Restored Audubon prints of a raven and a Baltimore oriole to be shown at law library

September 18, 2006|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,sun reporter

The birds have come home to roost.

Come Wednesday, two distinctly Maryland birds - the Baltimore oriole and the raven - will await admirers from their unusual perch in the Maryland State Law Library in Annapolis. The ruby-throated hummingbird and the summer red bird sit there now.

They are part of the library's rare collection of John James Audubon's 19th-century Birds of America prints, newly returned from desperately needed art conservation.

The $300,000 restoration was part of an $854,000 project to tend to preservation of the library's rare collections. It featured an overhaul of the rare book room and the addition of a new display case, which are to be unveiled midweek.

But Audubon's original bird prints, with their vibrant colors, detailed lines and historical value, are the treasured centerpiece. They are known as double-elephant folios, because the sheets are nearly 40 inches wide, and were considered an incredible accomplishment in the illustration of birds when made.

Nearly all have been cleaned and restored to some degree, with the last batch due to leave the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia by the end of the year.

"What's so amazing is that the detail has been restored. If you look closely, you can see the feather markings," library director Steven Anderson said, pointing to the wings on the red bird print.

"These were important to conserve because they are so valuable," he added.

Anderson will find out how valuable when he has the 430 prints appraised next year. A complete set in perfect condition - the state's is neither complete nor pristine - fetched $8.8 million at auction in 2000. That led then-law library director Mike Miller to gasp and have his blemished set's condition evaluated in 2001.

The Haitian-born Audubon became famous for his detailed and dramatic illustrations of birds that placed them in their natural habitat. He spent much of his life traveling in North America, observing and drawing wildlife. The National Audubon Society, a conservation group, bears his name.

Of 200 subscription sets he created from 1827 to 1838, 112 intact sets survive, said Joel Oppenheimer, a Chicago art dealer and expert in Audubon art. Most can be found in museums and at universities. The value of the prints is greatly determined by condition. Prints such as Maryland's, with their damage, would be worth much less than a set in its original binding, which would be valued at between $10 million and $15 million, he said.

"This particular set has had a hard life," said Ingrid E. Bogel, the conservation laboratory's executive director.

The prints had been glued onto fabric. They had been so severely trimmed for a 1921 rebinding that some birds' claws were lopped off along with their ornithological names. Fingerprints, smudges, wrinkles, blotches, rubbed-off color, tears, even drips from beverages marred the pages.

Conservation efforts began with unbinding the prints from four books. It included cleaning pages with specialized solutions, bleaching the stains, flattening the paper, mending tears, painting the cracks and placing the prints in thick mats. Discolorations and creases remain, but they are less noticeable than before.

At one point, panic set in.

"We thought we were missing the raven," Anderson said.

Turned out it was bound out of order. However, the marsh wren is missing. So are four other prints. Officials suspect that the library really did receive all 435 prints, but nobody knows what happened to the rest.

The birds have two new nesting places. Gone is the glass-topped cabinet by the doorway, replaced by a tall climate-controlled secure display case in which 32 tiny-light bulbs illuminate two prints at a time.

The prints will be changed every week so that no print is overexposed to the library's harsh fluorescent lights.

Seven cabinets with drawers custom-built for the prints line one wall of the revamped special collections room.

The state judiciary spent $526,000 to redo its rare book room, which a few years ago was cramped and in disrepair. The library is located in the Maryland Courts of Appeal building on Rowe Boulevard.

Doubled in size to 800 square feet, the room houses rarities and oddities, historical legal volumes and assorted old tomes. Among them: Supreme Court justice bobbleheads that recently came with a subscription to a legal journal (they are hot collectibles); Maryland fisheries reports from 1876 to 1881; a legal book, in French, from the 1700s; and a few shelves of decades-old Annapolis and Baltimore City directories.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, who heads the group that oversees the law library, said the investment in preserving rare and valuable materials enhances the public library's resources.

"Given the fact that our law library is broader than just the law, we decided it was important," he said. "It is part of having the citizenry enjoy some of the things that we have."

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