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Audubon's 'Birds of America' fetches US$10 million

Published:Sunday | December 12, 2010 | 12:00 AM


It's quite a nest egg. John James Audubon's Birds of America, a rare blend of art, natural history and craftsmanship, fetched more than US$10 million at auction last Tuesday, 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 Audubon's 19th-century masterpiece. The sale at Sotheby's auction house had been anticipated for months by wealthy collectors.

The book sold for US$10,270,000 to an anonymous collector bidding by telephone, the auction house said.

Because each picture is so valuable, there have been fears 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.

"No one can rival John James Audubon for frontier glamour," O'Donnell 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."

Part naturalist and part artist, Audubon possessed an unequalled ability to observe, catalogue and paint the birds 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, justifying its stratospheric price tag.

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 was auctioned, going for a then-record US$8.8 million.

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."

Good condition

He said other historic books - such as 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 US$30 million and US$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 US$5.6 million while a Chaucer collection sold for more than US$4 million.

"That's getting close to Audubon," he said.

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 US$31 million.