Caleb Kiffer on a Rare Copy of ‘A Description of Sixteen New Species of North American Birds… Collected in Texas’

Featured in the June 13, 2024, auction of Maps & Atlases, Natural History & Color Plate Books is Lot 166: Jacob Post Giraud, Jr. & Nathaniel Currier’s A Description of Sixteen New Species of North American Birds, Described in the Annals of the New York Lyceum of Natural History, Collected in Texas, 1838, 1841. Here, Swann specialist Caleb Kiffer discusses the provenance of the book and the history of its publication.

The book came out of a trunk in the New England attic of a family named de Rham where it sat virtually untouched for 70 years. They knew it was there. It belonged to their family since 1841. Only occasionally trotted out to give a show to future generations. A book of bird prints. Eight beautifully hand-colored lithographs by Nathaniel Currier, illustrations for Jacob Post Giraud’s A Description of Sixteen New Species of North American Birds… Collected in Texas. 

Giraud was a Manhattan goods merchant and naturalist involved with the New York Lyceum who published a reasonably well-circulated book on the Birds of Long Island in 1844. Our book, an earlier publication, was not well-circulated at all. When it came out, it was immediately met with critique and criticism from the scientific community over the claims that these birds were, in fact, new species and were, in fact, even American. Audubon and others certainly had a pretty good handle on the birds of Texas at least 20 years prior.   

Regardless of whether Giraud’s birds were either of those things, I don’t think it matters today. As an ambitious 30-year-old, he believed it. Part of his intended legacy was proudly naming several of the species after his friends and others associated with ornithological study: Lawrence’s Flycatcher for the famous George N. Lawrence; Halsey’s Warbler for Abraham Halsey, president of the Brooklyn Lyceum of Natural History and artist of the original illustrations which served as models for Currier’s present lithographs; Bell’s Flycatcher for John Graham Bell, naturalist, taxidermist, and cohort of Audubon; Brasier’s [sic] Flycatcher for Philip Brasher, accomplished naturalist and father of prolific bird painter Rex Brasher; and then there is one plate of a red-breasted songbird called de Rham’s Warbler—memorializing a young man named Casimir de Rham. With the book is a letter: 

“Charles De Rham Esq.Dear Sir,

The laudable exertion made by your deceased brother, for the advancement of this interesting branch of Natural History, has induced me to dedicate to his memory, a new species of Muscicapa.

Respectfully JP Giraud. Oct. 30th /41″.  

Charles de Rham would have been barely a man at 19 when he received this letter and, presumably, the book with it. This is a profound honor to his older brother Casimir, who died at 22 in 1840. He is the great-great-great-uncle of our New England attic de Rhams.  

Again, Giraud’s book was met with less acceptance than he likely anticipated and very few copies ended up being printed. Anderson Galleries suggested in 1925, “If more than 10 or 12 copies of this great rarity were made, they must have been destroyed by the author’s own hand”. Indeed, apart from this copy, there are nine listed examples in institutional collections, and the last time it appeared on the market was in 1955. It’s rare enough that bibliographers *from the nineteenth century* described it as such.   

And so it was that the slim volume wended its way through the succeeding generations of a young birder who may have had the passion and potential to do great things in the field. The simply-printed paper covers gone brittle with age; fragmented, but still preciously preserved. The text leaves bearing annotated corrections by the author’s own hand. The large pictures of birds seemingly defiant to how time generally has its way with objects like this. Kept privately and perfectly until that trunk in New England cracked open to show us what it held. 

Bird culture, scientific ornithology, artistry, Americana, Texana, color plates, printing history, material culture, original presentation, impeccable provenance, extreme rarity—we can usually only imagine it—the whole kit and caboodle—a holy grail.