Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Auction action: Roger Tory Peterson

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes:  It's August 28, 2012.  Roger Tory Peterson would have been 104 years old today.  If he were still alive, I suspect he would have spent at least part of the day painting birds ... as he did on the last day of his life, in July 1996, when he was almost 88. 

Recently I've been thinking about Peterson's artwork a lot ... mostly because some of it is going to be auctioned off soon.  On September 8, Guernsey's Auctioneers in New York will be offering 500 lots of material from the Petersons' estates.  Basic information on the auction is available here.

Although the writeup says that it's an auction "consisting entirely of the work of Roger Tory Peterson," the online catalog tells a slightly different story.  A number of original Audubon prints are also included, presumably from Roger's private collection.  Quite a few matted photographic prints are being offered, and a few other odd items, including older binoculars and camera gear. But the auction does include hundreds of pieces of original artwork from Peterson's hand. 

Of course, Peterson produced a prodigious amount of artwork - much of it in the form of field guide illustrations - during his long and productive life.  Much of his best artwork is housed at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York.  I was on the board of trustees of RTPI for several years, so Kimberly and I made repeated trips to the Institute, and we had the opportunity to admire many pieces of Roger's original art.  As a lifelong fan of Peterson and his work, I believe that his finest artwork ever would have to be the brilliant ink drawings that he did to illustrate Wild America, the wonderful travel book that he coauthored with James Fisher.  Fortunately, the drawings from Wild America are housed at the Peterson Institute.  So are many other examples of his finest work, including the drawings from the Bird Watcher's Anthology and many of his larger studio paintings.  Incidentally, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute is far more than just a museum of RTP's work - it's a dynamic organization that actively promotes nature education.  RTPI deserves the support of the birding community; see their website here for more information.

Following Roger Peterson's death in 1996 and Virginia Peterson's death in 2001, there was a certain amount of disagreement over their estates.  Roger's sons, Tory and Lee, wanted to have all of his artwork donated to the Peterson Institute.  Virginia's daughters had other ideas, and after quite a bit of legal wrangling, the artwork was divided up.  The material that is going on auction now is from Virginia's side of the family.  It may not include Roger's very best work, but there are some major gems included, and all of it has great cultural and historic value.

A perusal of the online catalog (available at this link) reveals some odd misidentifications.  Lot 25, "Wheatear, early work," shows a male Common Yellowthroat feeding a fledgling.  Lot 2, "Eagle, head detail," is an illustration of Snail Kites.  Strangest of all is Lot 74A, "Unknown, possibly various titmice."  This shows several species of yuhinas, small songbirds from Asia.  It probably wasn't done by Peterson at all, since it doesn't appear to be in his style and he never did anything formal with Asian birds, so its inclusion here represents an intriguing mystery.

At any rate, I'll be discussing all the material in the catalog tomorrow, because I'm meeting with one of the curators at the Toledo Museum of Art to discuss the merits of various pieces included in the auction.  This year, Kimberly and I have had the pleasure of getting to know some of the staff at the museum.  The dynamic director of the TMA, Brian Kennedy, is keenly interested in outreach to the community, and it was his idea to do a major exhibition on birds in art this year, reflecting interest in The Biggest Week In American Birding!  This link between a bird festival and an art museum has been one of the most gratifying things to come out of our efforts in this region.

I don't know whether the Toledo Museum of Art will wind up bidding on any of the Peterson artwork, but I imagine that most of it will wind up being sold.  If anyone reading this post happens to bid successfully on items in the auction, I have a suggestion: please take the artwork seriously and please think about where it will wind up after you're gone.  Bequeathing it to the Roger Tory Peterson Institute would be a fabulous idea.  Better yet, buy something in the auction, donate it to the Peterson Institute, and then go to visit your artwork once a year.  Roger Tory Peterson holds a unique place in the worlds of birding, natural history, and art, and his work should be preserved for future generations to study and appreciate. 

For an official statement from the Roger Tory Peterson Institute about the upcoming auction, please follow this link.

And if you have a serious interest in any aspect of nature, anywhere in the world, it's likely that you have benefited somehow from the work of the late Dr. Peterson, reason enough to raise a glass to his memory on this day.


  1. Kenn, thanks for making the natural history community more aware of this unfortunate situation, it may help bring these works of art by Roger Tory Peterson to the place where he intended them to be. Roger's intentions were derailed by greed temporarily, but will prevail in the end some day.

  2. are there any results for how much some of the plates ended up going for?

    1. Hi Matt,

      Yes, the auction website lists the results; however, you have to create an account in order to view them.

  3. Thank you so much for this illuminating post... I always wondered where this family rift might lead. I am especially sadened by the fact that the extraordinary bird-rich land surounding RTP's home (in Old Lyme, CT, I believe?) should have been transformed into a bird sanctuary, but I have read this did not actually happen.

    And has the auction taken place, yet? Were any piece but by publicly-minded people or institutions?

    Pierre Cenerelli

    1. Hello,

      Thank you for reading our blog and commenting. The auction website lists the results; however, you have to create an account in order to view them.

  4. The Roger Tory Peterson, 2000-run, Field Guide to Western Birds that was copyright 1990 and bound in red leather is worth more as a collectible item if it was printed missing a page. The reasons for this are it was an in-house printing error that was not produced by external wear or tear in possession by an owner. Also, the item's condition as being a one-of-a-kind, collectible object in an already limited series renders it a precious rarity.

    1. I don't know about Kenn, but I had never heard this about that particular field guide. Thanks for the very interesting tidbit!