A rare copy of “Birds of America” by John James Audubon was sold yesterday for Ł7,321,250 (over $10 million) at a Sotheby’s auction in London, making it the world’s most expensive printed book.
The four-volume book, one of the best preserved editions of Audubon’s 19th-century masterpiece, with its 435 hand-colored illustrations, was bought by London dealer Michael Tollemache bidding in the Sotheby’s auction room. After offering the winning bid, Tollemache described the book, which contains 435 magnificent hand-coloured etched plates, as “priceless”.
While the Audubon volume holds the record for a printed book, a 72-page notebook of Leonardo da Vinci’s handwritten notes and illustrations known as the Leicester Codex was bought by Bill Gates in 1994 for $31 million.
To some, the “Birds of America” is just a bunch of bird pictures. To others, it is a rare blend of art, natural history and craftsmanship.
Some of the world’s wealthiest book collectors had been anticipating the auction for months: it represents a chance to own one of the best preserved editions of Aubudon’s 19th Century masterpiece, with its 435 hand-colored illustrations.
Each individual picture in “Birds of America” is so valuable there have been some fears the volume could be broken up and sold as 435 separate works of art. Experts believe that unlikely: the tome is probably more valuable intact. And collectors hold Audubon in such reverence that the notion of ripping apart a perfect copy would be akin to sacrilege.
“Audubon’s Birds holds a special place in the rare book market for several reasons,” said Heather O’Donnell, a specialist with Bauman Rare Books in New York. “The book is a major original contribution to the study of natural history in the New World.
“It’s also one of the most visually stunning books in the history of print: The scale of the images, the originality of each composition, the brilliance of the hand coloring.”
“No one can rival John James Audubon for frontier glamour,” she said. “The story of his lonely journey through the American wilderness and his struggle to record what he saw there gives the Birds a resonance that no other book can match.”
Audubon was part naturalist, part artist, and possessed a rare, almost unequaled ability to observe, catalog and paint the birds he observed in the wild. Experts say his book, originally published in 1827, is unmatched in its beauty and also of considerable scientific value, justifying its stratospheric cost.
Pom Harrington, owner of the Peter Harrington rare book firm in London, said it has been 10 years since the last complete edition of “Birds of America,” with all of the illustrations, has been auctioned – and that was sold for $8.8 million by Christie’s auction house, a record for a printed book at auction at that time.
He said it is unusual to find a copy not in a museum or academic institution.
“If you want to buy an example of a rare work of art, this is one of the best,” he said. “It is valuable in its artistic nature because it is so well drawn.”
He said other historic books – like an excellent example of a Gutenberg Bible – would likely be valued even higher if they came up for sale.
Harrington estimated that a complete Gutenberg Bible in good condition would probably sell for between $30 million and $50 million, but none has been sold in more than 30 years. In recent years, he said, a complete First Folio of Shakespeare’s works sold at auction for about $5.6 million while a Chaucer collection sold for more than $4 million.
Sotheby’s books expert David Goldthorpe said the Aubudon and Shakespeare volumes represent “the twin peaks of book collecting.” The books come from the estate of the 2nd Baron Hesketh, an aristocratic book collector who died in 1955.
The “Birds of America” plates were printed in black and white and hand-colored afterward. That made the production process extremely expensive, especially, Harrington said, since it was carried out by “the best artists of the time.”
The collection, made from engravings of Audubon’s watercolors, measures more than 3 feet by 2 feet (90 centimeters by 60 centimeters) because Audubon wanted to paint the birds life size.
The size of the illustrations makes them extremely valuable as standalone piece of arts, which makes the complete edition vulnerable to being broken up so the individual prints can be sold one-by-one.
There are thought to be just over 100 copies of Birds Of America, which measures around 90 centimetres by 60 centimetres, still in existence.
Audubon painted life-sized illustrations of almost 500 breeds in the 40-inch-high book, which merited several mentions in Darwin’s The Origin Of Species.
Only 119 copies exist, of which fewer than a dozen are in private hands.
John James Audubon (April 26, 1785 – January 27, 1851) was a French-American ornithologist, naturalist, hunter, and painter. He possessed a rare, almost unequaled ability to observe, catalogue and paint the birds of North America he observed in the wild. Born in Haiti and raised in France as a youth, he emigrated to the U.S. at 18. He had been fascinated by birds since childhood and was determined to illustrate America’s breeds more realistically than ever before. Audubon made an epic voyage down the mighty Mississippi after his dry-goods business failed, with only a rifle, an assistant, and a drawing pad, making illustrations of as many birds as he could find.
Using a technique which would shock modern wildlife artists, Audubon hunted them down and shot them before propping them up on wires to paint. Each drawing would take about 60 hours to complete.
He did not find a printer in the United States willing to take on the book, with its oversize illustrations, so he sailed to England, eventually finding printers in Edinburgh, Scotland, and in London.
Many of his beautifully rendered subjects are now extinct, such as the passenger pigeon which until the mid-19th century migrated across the U.S. in flocks of up to two million. The book was sold as part of the collection of the late Lord Hesketh which included a Shakespeare First Folio from 1623, said to be the most important book in English literature. The First Folio was sold for Ł1.5million.
David Goldthorpe, of Sotheby’s, said the two were the ‘twin peaks’ of the book world. He added: ‘To have these items in one sale is remarkable.’
Experts say the book he produced is unmatched in its beauty and also of considerable scientific value, justifying its stratospheric cost.
Pom Harrington, owner of the Peter Harrington rare book firm in London, said it has been ten years since the last complete edition of ‘Birds of America’, with all of the illustrations, has been auctioned – and that was sold for Ł5.6million by Christie’s auction house in 2000, a record for a printed book at auction.
The quality of the edition offered yesterday by Sotheby’s was extremely high, said Harrington, and it is unusual to find one not in a museum or academic institution.
‘If you want to buy an example of a rare work of art, this is one of the best,’ he said. ‘It is valuable in its artistic nature because it is so well drawn.’
The plates were printed in black and white and hand coloured afterwards. That made the production process extremely expensive, especially since it was carried out by ‘the best artists of the time’, said Harrington.
The collection of 435 hand-coloured prints, made from engravings of Audubon’s watercolours, measures more than 3ft by 2ft because Audubon wanted to paint the birds life-size.
The size of the illustrations makes them extremely valuable as standalone pieces of art, which makes the complete edition vulnerable to being broken up so the individual prints can be sold one-by-one.
Harrington, said the wild turkey that is depicted in the first big plate of the book can be sold for Ł126,000.
But Mark Ghahramani, a rare book specialist at Classic Bindings in London, said it is unlikely that Birds Of America will be divided up for resale because it is probably more valuable if left intact.
‘There are very few copies left of the entire book, so I would think that whoever bought it at the auction would be quite interested in keeping it whole,’ he said. ‘Anything to do with American natural history is quite valuable.’
You can get more information about “The Birds of America” by John James Audubon and view all the illustrations of the birds at this link.