Audubon's First Print Is Found: Bird On An 1824 $3 Bill For decades, scholars have wondered what happened to naturalist John James Audubon's first commercial illustration, of a small bird called a heath hen. In 1824, the engraving was destined to decorate a banknote -- but it was soon lost. Now an example has been found.
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Audubon's First Print Is Found, Ending Long Search

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Audubon's First Print Is Found, Ending Long Search

Audubon's First Print Is Found, Ending Long Search

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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And now a mystery solved. Back in 1824, naturalist John James Audubon wrote in his diary that he had drawn a small grouse for a Philadelphia engraver. The drawing was meant to appear on a banknote being issued in New Jersey. It would've been Audubon's first published illustration. Scholars searched for it for decades, unsuccessfully, until currency expert Eric Newman and Audubon scholar Robert Bob Peck joined the hunt. He joins us from Philadelphia.

Mr. ROBERT PECK (Curator, Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia): The amazing thing is that at the time there were thousands and thousands of bank notes circulating. This was before we had a national currency.

And so what we were looking for - because Audubon had said in his diary this was for a New Jersey bank note - was exactly that. Unfortunately, as we later discovered, if, in fact, a New Jersey bank note did use Audubon's image, it eventually destroyed all of its currency with that vignette on it.

MONTAGNE: So you didn't find the note itself, but you found...

Mr. PECK: We didn't find the note. We found one of the sample sheets. The sample sheets would offer pictures of George Washington and bald eagles and so on.

And there, amidst all of these rather staid and patriotic symbols that would be appropriate for banknotes, was this tiny little bird rushing through the grass. And it was so out of character for the rest of them and so in character for Audubon that we knew in that moment we'd found what we were looking for.

MONTAGNE: Why the fascination with this particular engraving? Audubon made a lot of paintings and drawings. What was the difference?

Mr. PECK: Well, this came at a critical time in Audubon's life. He wanted to be a bird painter. He wanted to produce a magnificent work on birds, and he couldn't find anyone to back him. He'd struggled with one job after another. He actually spent some time in debtor's prison.

And this was kind of a breakthrough for him. Here was a viable engraving company who was willing to pay him, but also more importantly get his picture onto a piece of currency.

MONTAGNE: You know, tell us a little about Audubon himself. And I'm asking partly because given this was a lost bill, it's possible that historians would've thought that maybe he just made it up.

Mr. PECK: Actually, Audubon would often make up stories or enhance his own reputation, partly to compensate for a questionable early life. He was actually the illegitimate son of a French sea captain. He had reason to fudge the facts a bit. He even claimed at one point to be the lost son of Louis XVI.

He played this card both ways. When he was here in America he would play up his aristocratic European origins. And when he was in England, he played up his role as the frontiersman from America. He would dress in buckskins. He would put bear grease in his hair. Cut a very flamboyant figure.

And so there was reason for people to have questioned whether this banknote really ever existed.

MONTAGNE: Well, considering all the splashier birds Audubon illustrated -pretty little hummingbirds and flamingos and other birds - is this drawing of a little running grouse quite a big deal?

Mr. PECK: Well, the drawing itself is very modest. Unfortunately, from Audubon's point of view, it was a bad choice. At least I think this was one of the reasons that more bank companies didn't adopt it.

A little scurrying grouse rushing into a bed of grass is not the kind of confident image that a bank president wants to convey. So my guess is the bank officer said, oh no, take out that grouse, put in a bald eagle, we want something patriotic here.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: That was Robert Peck, curator of arts and artifacts at Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences. He, along with currency historian Eric Newman, discovered a long-lost print by John James Audubon. It's NPR News.

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