Audubon’s complete ‘Birds of America’ fetches $10m
IT’S QUITE a nest egg. John J a me s Au d u b o n ’ s Birds of America, a rare blend of art, natural history and craftsmanship, has fetched more than $10 million (R69m) at auction, making it the world’s most expensive published book.
With its 435 hand-coloured illustrations of birds drawn to size, the volume is one of the best preserved editions of the 19th-century masterpiece.
The sale at Sotheby’s auc- tion house had been anticipated for months by wealthy collectors.
Because each picture is so valuable, there have been fears that the volume will be broken up and sold as separate works of art. However, experts believe that’s 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,” 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 colouring.” Then there’s the wow factor. “ N o o n e c a n r iv a l J o h n James Audubon for frontier glamour,” O’Donnell said. “The story of his lonely jour ney through the American wilderness and his struggle to record what he saw there gives the Birds a resonance that no other book can match.”
Pa r t n a t u r a l i s t a n d p a r t artist, Audubon possessed an unequalled ability to observe, catalogue and paint the birds that he observed in the wild.
Experts say his book, originally published in 1827, is unmatched in its beauty and is also of considerable scientific value.
Pom Harrington, owner of the Peter Harrington rare book firm in London, said it had been 10 years since the last complete edition of Birds of America was auctioned, going for a then-record $8.8m.
“If you want to buy an example of a rare work of art, this is one of the best,” he said.
He said other historic books – such as an excellent example of a Gutenberg Bible – would probably be valued even higher if they came up for sale.
Harrington estimated that a complete Gutenberg Bible in good condition would sell for $30m–$50m, but none has been sold in more than 30 years.
While the Audubon volume holds the record for a published book, a 72-page notebook of Leonardo da Vinci’s handwritten notes and illustrations went for even more. Known as the Leicester Codex, the collection was bought by Bill Gates in 1994 for $31m. Also on the block was a Shakespeare First Folio from 1623 that fetched $2.05m.
S o t h e by ’s b o o k s e x p e r t David Goldthorpe said the Audubon and the Shakespeare, from the estate of the 2nd Baron Hesketh, represented “the twin peaks of book collecting”. Hesketh died in 1955.
The Birds of America plates were printed in black and white and then hand-coloured by “the best artists of the time”, Harrington said. The collection, made from engravi n g s o f Au d u b o n ’ s w a t e r - colours, measures more than 90cm by 60cm because Audubon wanted to paint the birds life size.
Audubon, who died in 1851, made an epic voyage down the Mississippi. Taking only a rifle, an assistant and a drawing pad, he made illustrations of as many birds as he could find.
He did not find a printer in the US willing to take on the book with its oversize illustrations, so he sailed to Britain, eventually finding printers in London and Edinburgh. The volume is seen as a vital piece of American history, Harrington said. – Sapa-AP