The old house seems an unpromising target for a major heist. More or less typical of the balconied and ornate structures known as Conch-style, it sits on a quiet and shady street in the restored Old Town section of Key West, Fla., a shrine to John James Audubon, who lived there in 1832 while working on some of the paintings in his renowned Birds of America
series. The downstairs rooms are largely devoted to period furniture and decor; the really hot stuff is in a gallery upstairs. There, inside glass showcases, are four volumes bound in brown pigskin, each measuring 37?" x 24?", each weighing about 50 pounds, each opened to an engraving of an Audubon painting. That is, they were there until May 27, the Friday night of the Great Audubon Caper, a burglary that has ruffled the feathers of the art and ornithological worlds.
Those who might tend to dismiss a bird painting as just a painting of a bird have since come to appreciate what the thieves made off with. Audubon's original water-colors were engraved on copper plates; 200 sets of prints were pulled, each of the 435 plates depicting 497 species were then colored by hand and the plates bound into four-volume sets. Because the size of the folios was unusually large, engravers of the day called them Double Elephant Folios. That was in 1838. A complete Double Elephant Audubon Folio is now one of the rarest of collector's items, rarer, for example, than the surviving 238 or so first-folio Shakespeares. To put that into money terms, one Audubon set was sold last spring for $352,000.
The burglars obviously planned carefully, moving in sometime after the usually crowded streets of Old Town were deserted. The house had been routinely locked up for the night, and an automatic burglar alarm set. The thieves—police believe there were three—somehow disengaged the alarm, opened the lock on the front door and went to the upstairs gallery, where they expertly pried open the locked cases and lifted out the four volumes. When they departed, they left the front door unlocked. A gardener who doubles as the night watchman discovered this while making his rounds, and after a quick check, he believed that nothing was missing. The theft was discovered the next morning.
There have not been many reported thefts of Audubon Double Elephant Folios. The complete sets are so well known that art dealers and collectors would call the police if anybody showed up with one. But the individual prints, if reasonably explained ("I discovered them in my grandma's attic"), can be sold at prices ranging from $750 to $5,000 apiece. There are so many of these prints in circulation that dealers will buy them without question. The set stolen in Key West is considered, based on watermarks and other characteristics, to be one of the first printed. It appeared on the record of an art sale made on March 1, 1935 at a New York auction, getting a then-record price of $5,750. Purchased by a Virginia collector, the set was placed on display at the headquarters of the Audubon Society in New York.
In 1960 Mitchell Wolfson, a former mayor of Miami Beach, restored the Audubon House in Key West, where he had grown up. He bought the folio for an undisclosed price, and it became the most celebrated exhibit because it was the only complete folio on permanent public display anywhere in the world.
Experts figure that since the printing of the Double Elephant Folios was completed in 1838, some 66 sets have been broken up, destroyed in fires or in wars, or have disappeared without a trace. That so much is known about the remainder is largely the work of Waldemar H. Fries, who undoubtedly is better acquainted with the Audubon folios than anyone since Audubon himself. A Philadelphia banker, Fries retired in 1955 and spent 15 years tracking down the whereabouts and history of each set. He personally examined all but six of the 134 complete folios known to exist, a project that took him to Melbourne, Copenhagen, Leningrad, Lisbon and Florence, as well as to museums and collections throughout the U.S. and Great Britain. His quest also involved the cooperation of 272 librarians. Four years ago, Fries incorporated his findings in a monumental work, The Double Elephant Folio: The Story of Audubon's Birds of America
. In one sense, his book is melancholy reading, an unsparing record of losses as a result of disasters, carelessness or ignorance of Audubon's magnificent achievement.
The most thoroughly documented theft of a Double Elephant Folio took place on the night of June 13, 1971. A burglar broke a back window of Schaffer Library at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., where one Audubon volume was on display. He cut his hand badly while breaking the glass cover of the case, but made off with the book.
Later that summer, John H. Jenkins, a rare book dealer in Austin, Texas, was visited by a man who identified himself as Carl Hoffman, offering rare books for sale. He showed Jenkins an illuminated manuscript and a very old Koran, which the dealer felt were worth from $10,000 to $20,000. Hoffman also told Jenkins that some old bird paintings had turned up in an attic. As Jenkins related in an article for the Union College magazine, "My growing suspicion [was] that Mr. Hoffman was not all he appeared to be.... One moment his gentlemanly facade would be intact, the next moment his real ignorance would pop up." The same day Hoffman saw an ad in a trade journal reporting that rare books and manuscripts, including a Koran, had been stolen from another dealer, and that a $2,000 reward was being offered by Union College for the return of its Audubon.
"I finally reached the FBI," Jenkins wrote. "They told me that it was all very interesting—though they made it fairly clear that it wasn't, really—but they said that they doubted I'd ever hear from the man again. If by some chance I did, and he had some books with him, I should call them so he could be arrested. But only, they cautioned, if he could be taken with the goods."
Jenkins heard from Hoffman a few weeks later, in a call from New York. When Hoffman offered to bring the Audubons to Texas, Jenkins invented a buying trip during which, he said, he planned to spend $50,000. The trip would take him to New York and he would look at the Audubons there. They arranged to meet at JFK airport. Jenkins then called the FBI. "We don't know what you look like," said an agent, "and we don't have time to protect you."