For The Birds

There’s only one reality show you would ever see me on (willingly; I suppose there is still a chance I might show up on Cops), and that is the original, the best, and the most cerebral: Antiques Roadshow. Antiques Roadshow is the most real of reality show television, because its just average people with old shit that make for a conversation piece. It’s like an evening at your Great Aunt’s house. You don’t need to be loud, or horny, or drunk, or an already established D-list celebrity to get in front of the camera. You just need to grab some junk from your basement and wipe off the dust.

I love Antiques Roadshow, and I have long daydreamed of one day sitting down across from some suited, middle-aged, bespectacled man with thinning hair, an old painting-or-sculpture-or-toy-or-Moroccan-doily sitting on the table between us, and my new antiquarian friend exclaiming, “My jaw just about hit the floor when I saw (insert valuable item here)!” When asked how I acquired it, I would reply, “I found it out behind the Aldi while dumpster diving for day-old bread!”

Since I don’t dumpster dive for day old bread (…yet…) I have never been able to carry out this dream. I’ve come close a few times when perusing antique stores or flea markets. I picked up a circa 1950s Pflueger for $5 while on our honeymoon in Maine. I grabbed a 1930s era silent-check fly reel for $10 at a shop in Ashland (pro tip: the best deals on fishing gear are in shops that specialize in fine china or some crap like that, because they have no idea what they’re selling when it comes to fishing gear). On one of our first forays into the Sauk Prairie community, I found a Meisselbach skeleton fly reel in the basement of a junk store for $20.

As you can see, I have a predilection for old fishing gear. However, I’m also constantly on the lookout for duck decoys and original bird prints. Stuff by guys like John Audubon, Alexander Wilson, and Mark Catesby (one of my great failures in life is losing two Catesby prints reproduced in an 18th century men’s magazine during our many moves). I’m drawn in by the brilliantly-colored engravings, the handmade neatness of it all, and the artist’s perspective on each bird that cannot be replicated by photos. It’s a window of time, through the eyes of a handful of people, on some of the earliest attempts at scientific documentation of wildlife in the Western world.

I try not to think about the number of birds that needed to be shot so the artists could carry out their work. Not all things about the past were rosy.

I wasn’t expecting any great discoveries today; this Tuesday was already pleasant enough without any surprises. I landed a nice 14-inch brown on the creek this morning, and I was preparing to make a batch of homemade chili before heading out to the Trout Unlimited board meeting in the evening. However, I decided to pull an audible and make a quick trip to the local St. Vinny’s, on the hunt for some cheap dress shirts to complement my wardrobe for our upcoming trip to Europe. I found a few shirts and was going to high-tail it to the register, but a nagging little voice in the back of my head said just take a lap around, man.

So I did. I walked back to the sporting goods area to see if there might be a Wes Jordan bamboo rod or two in the half-off bin, but no dice. To get back to the checkout you have to walk through a short hallway that is festooned with art. Or, more accurately, “art”. Not quite Dogs Playing With Poker, but the kind of stuff that you’re grandmother probably had on her kitchen walls. Since there are usually a bunch of bird prints, I glanced over them to see if any might fit into the pieces already hanging in the August Derlerth room (note: I secretly refer to our third bedroom as the “August Derlerth Room” because it has a kinda-classy feel to it, like a place ol’ Auggie might have sat around in; my wife does not know this, until she read this).

So my eyes scanned over the pieces: cardinals, cedar waxwings, another cardinal, some other bird not a cardinal or cedar waxing, yawn… whoa.

There is a piece that makes me pause. It’s a… duck, of some sort. But it’s not a painting of the Thomas Kinkade school. This is an engraving. And at first glance it looks legit.

First thing I note is that the title is in German. The name of the bird is given in its scientific form—Latin—and repeated in French. The artist’s name and name of engraver are written in English. The artist is “G Edwards”. And, upon closer inspection, it still looks legit.

Plus, its 20% off Tuesdays.

I buy it without a second thought.

So here’s what I know about it:

George Edwards was an artist, engraver, and naturalist in 18th Century England. He also happened to be a friend of Mark Catesby, the naturalist who made the first serious attempt to document the flora and fauna of the American colonies in his work Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahamas Islands. Catesby taught Edwards how to make his own engravings, and in 1743 Edwards published his first major work, A Natural History of Uncommon Birds. Like his later counterpart John James Audubon, the “Father of American Ornithology” (which makes Catesby, in my opinion, Audubon’s “grandfather”) Edwards is considered the “Father of British Ornithology.”

Enter Johann Michael Seligmann, a German artist and engraver, a naturalists in his own right, and contemporary of Edwards. In 1762 Seligmann collected various plates from both Edwards and Catesby for his publication, Sammlung verschiedener ausländischer und seltener Vögel (“Collection of Various Foreign and Rare Birds”). A later edition was printed in 1805-1806.

This print comes from Seligmann’s work after an engraving created by Edwards, as indicated by the German title and the presence of Seligmann’s name in the bottom center, and Edwards’ name in the bottom left. It shows the “Grey-Headed Duck” (given in French), as well as the scientific name Anas Canadensis.

It’s a pretty sweet little piece of birding history. It also invites a few questions:

Is this an early or later edition? The paper exhibits a ribbed texture common in chain laid papermaking, which was used until the 19th Century, so it could either be a mid-1700s first edition or the later 1800s reprint. I attempted to remove the print from the frame to see if there might be any additional information to glean from the hidden portion of the print, but I’m afraid I might damage it if I remove it from the matte.

What’s up with the scientific name? Anas Canadensis is not a currently recognized name for any species. In the 18th century most ducks were classified in the genus Anas (which today includes mallards). Based upon the engraving, and the research I’ve been able to do, it is likely that the species represented here is the King Eider. Edwards’ original description of this specimen notes it was obtained from a colleague who collected it in Hudson Bay, which accounts for the species name (“Canada”). The King Eider was classified in the Anas genus at the time this engraving would have been produced.

How did an obscure German print end up in an obscure American town? The simplest explanation is that somebody somewhere was also a fan of bird prints, and through a series of events part of their collection ended at St. Vinnys. However, when I relayed my discovery to a coworker of mine he had a helluva better theory: the print was brought home after World War II. The “liberation” of German art and other goodies by Allied soldiers is documented at the end of the war, and decades later resulted in one of the best Simpsons episodes ever produced. Who knows?

Is it real? I’m not an expert, but I think so. It is printed on period-correct paper, it shows other earmarks of proper printing technique (i.e. the outline of the printing block is clearly evident), and it represents a lesser-known work. It seems highly unlikely that someone would go through the trouble of reproducing a work (down to the original media and technique) that has far less immediate recognition than those of Audubon, Wilson, Edwards, or Catesby. Most modern reproductions are those of better known artists and images, on modern paper, using laserjet printers. But if I got duped, so be it.

So for now it hangs in Auggie’s room. Eventually I would like to find a new frame, and maybe have a professional look at removing it from the matte. So, until the next time Antiques Roadshow rolls into town…