Duke of Portland’s set of John James Audubon books sells at Christie’s for $9.6 million.
By all estimates John James Audubon’s magnum opus, The Birds of America, had a print run of 175 to 200 editions. From that original printing, 120 complete editions are known to have survived, with 107 of them in the collections of institutions, leaving just 13 in private hands.
One of those 13 editions, a set owned by the fourth Duke of Portland, sold at Christie’s June 14 for $9.6 million, within estimates of $8 million to $12 million. The full set is made up of four volumes of doubleelephant folios with 435 handcolored copperplate etchings and five bound text volumes, known as the Ornithological Biography. The works are elegantly bound and gilded by royal English bookbinder John Mackenzie.
Based on the binding and other markings, it is estimated that the book set was purchased by the fourth Duke of Portland, William Henry Cavendish-scottbentinck (1768-1854), who was passionate about natural history. The set passed down to the fifth and sixth Dukes of Portland, and was later sold to Christie’s in 2012, when it was purchased by the late Wyoming conservationist Carl W. Knobloch Jr., who gifted it to his foundation, Knobloch Family Foundation.
Audubon’s book cemented his status as one of America’s earliest and most prolific ornithologists—the National Audubon Society was created in 1905 and named in his honor. Plates from the book, and occasionally Audubon’s original watercolor paintings that the etchings were based on, are staples at museums around the world. The book is known for its massive doubleelephant size, as well as the comprehensive catalog of birds, many of them rendered in lifesize compositions. Some of the most famous pages feature birds such as the golden eagle, winter hawk, wild turkey and the great blue heron. The books, published from 1827 to 1838, feature six birds that are now extinct: Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon, Labrador duck, great auk, Eskimo curlew and pinnated grouse.
John James Audubon (1785-1851), The Winter Hawk (Plate LXXI) (Circus hyemalis), handcolored etching, 26 x 39”
John James Audubon (1785-1851), Great Blue Heron (Plate CCXI) (Ardea Herodias), from The Birds of America, handcolored etching, 39 x 26”