Rare Audubon book sells for more than $10 million

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

LONDON -- To some it's just a bunch of bird pictures. To others, John James Audubon's "Birds of America" is a rare blend of art, natural history and craftsmanship, unique enough to sell for more than $10 million at a London auction Tuesday -- making it the world's most expensive book.

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.

The book sold for $10,270,000 at a Sotheby's auction to an anonymous collector bidding by telephone, the auction house said.

Each individual picture 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."

Then there's the wow factor.

"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.

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.

"That's getting close to Audubon," he said. Close, but no cigar: the complete Audubon book is more rare than the Shakespeare folio -- and much more beautiful to look at, even if Shakespeare is more famous.

A Shakespeare First Folio from 1623 is also being auctioned with the Audubon book Tuesday evening. It is likely to be sold for more than $1.5 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.

Harrington said that the wild turkey that is depicted in the first big plate of the book can be sold for $200,000.

But Mark Ghahramani, a rare book specialist at Classic Bindings in London, said it is unlikely the "Birds of America" will be divided up for resale because it is probably more valuable 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."

Audubon, who died in 1851, represents a unique figure in American history, a renaissance man with shades of Huckleberry Finn -- like Mark Twain's fictional character, Audubon made an epic voyage down the mighty Mississippi -- but with a scientist's inquisitive nature.

He made his trip, 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.

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.

The volume is seen as a vital piece of American history, Harrington said.

"It is the most important natural history book for America," he said. "That is the main point. It screams Americana. For an American patriot, it is the greatest book on American heritage -- there is no competition."


Gillian Smith contributed to this report.

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