Audubon’s com­plete ‘Birds of Amer­ica’ fetches $10m

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - AUCTIONS - Gre­gory Katz

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

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