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Treasures: The natural order of things

Bird prints by Frederick Polydore Nodder are well-known by collectors.
Bird prints by Frederick Polydore Nodder are well-known by collectors.

Dear Helaine and Joe: We recently found a treasure in our basement. My husband's aunt left him two hand-colored engravings of birds by the artist Nodder. They are 4 by 6 inches and have a letter of authenticity from a Chicago firm. There is some water damage on one of the mats, but not on the engraving. What are these worth? — D.M., Detroit

Dear D.M.: Books on flora and fauna were popular during the 18th and early 19th centuries. A number of naturalists, primarily in Europe but also in the United States, published tomes on exotic (and domestic) birds, animals and flowers.

Illustrations from these books are now widely collected, although purists prefer to have the entire volume intact or a complete set of volumes that originally contained these prints. It is important to remember that while some of these prints did not make it into books, most of the illustrations from this time period were once contained in a publication of some sort. As a general rule, in order for a single image to exist, it had to be removed from a book — a desecration to many people.

There were actually two English flora-and-fauna illustrators named Nodder who made engravings such as those in today's question: Frederick P. Nodder and his son, Richard.

Frederick Nodder flourished from about 1770 to 1800. He is perhaps best known for his illustrations in "The Naturalist's Miscellany," a compilation of birds, mammals, crustaceans, reptiles, insects and fish from around the world but with a focus on species from the South Seas.

The Nodders teamed with George Shaw (1751-1813), the zoologist of the British Museum and a fellow of the Royal Society, to produce "The Naturalist's Miscellany," which was later assembled into a 24-volume set after being serialized between 1790 and 1813. Shaw provided the text and the scholarship for this work, while Nodder and his son contributed the superbly hand-colored copperplate etchings.

The elder Nodder died in 1800, but his son continued with the production of the illustrations until Shaw died in 1813. "The Naturalist's Miscellany" was initially published in octavo size, approximately 6 by 9.5 inches, and these dimensions worry us in light of D.M.'s report that his or her examples are a mere 4 by 6 inches.

We hope this is only a measurement of the image area because if this is the size of the entire etching, it cannot be from the first editions, which will diminish their monetary value. In 2009, a complete 24-volume set of "The Naturalist's Miscellany," with 1,064 Nodder illustrations, sold at auction in London for $31,200.

Some individual Nodder engravings are more valuable than others. The image of a dodo bird, for example, retails for more than $700. But if the more typical examples belonging to D.M. are from the first edition and in good condition, the insurance-replacement value ranges from $150 to $250 for each.

Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of "Price It Yourself" (HarperResource, $19.95). Contact them at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 27540, Knoxville, TN 37927. E-mail them at treasures@knology.net.)

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.