John J. Audubon’s ivory-billed woodpeckers in action. Audubon’s “The Birds of America” sold for $7.9 million at auction at Christie’s in London on Jan. 20, 2012.
John J. Audubon’s American flamingo was posed so that it was still life-sized but could fit on a 39-inch page. Audubon’s “The Birds of America” sold for $7.9 million at auction at Christie’s in London on Jan. 20, 2012.
As an accredited book appraiser, book dealer, book collector and book lover, I am always thrilled to see a rare and valuable set of illustrated books come up for auction. And John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” is one of the most exquisite sets ever produced. Bound in multiple giant volumes, it contains 435 classic, hand-colored engravings in breathtaking detail. It went up for auction in London at Christie’s on Jan. 20, 2012.
At most, 200 first editions were produced, and of those, only 120 are known to still exist in their entirety. Another first edition sold in 2010 for a record $11.5 million so I expected the January auction at Christie’s to be exciting.
Born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Audubon (1785-1851) was raised in France but moved to the United States at age 18 to avoid serving in Napoleon’s army. He had painted birds since childhood and wanted to record the image of every bird in North America. He killed the birds he painted so that he could stuff and pose them in lifelike scenarios, using wires to extend wings, arch necks and bend legs. It was a revolutionary concept in ornithological art and, as a result, Audubon’s birds swoop, flock, fish, swim, hunt and nest with every feather and nuance of color accurately portrayed. Because he also wanted the images to be life-sized, the books are massive – measuring more than three feet in height. (The term “double elephant folio,” used to describe the size in book verbiage, has become almost synonymous with Audubon’s greatest work.)
The 200 sets were created over a period of 11 years and at great expense. To fund the effort, subscribers in France, Scotland, England and America (including American politicians Daniel Webster and Henry Clay) paid in advance and received five prints at a time as they were finished. At the completion of the work in 1838, the subscribers’ prints could be retroactively bound (in usually three to five volumes).
The four-volume set that sold at Christie’s in London on Jan. 20 was originally owned by William Henry Cavendish, the fourth Duke of Portland, who purchased it sometime after 1838. Some observers were disappointed that the sale came in at less than $10 million, but I thought $7,922,500 (including buyer’s premium) was a very respectable showing.
If you can’t afford to shell out millions of dollars to own one of these masterpieces, don’t despair. In 2007, the University of Pittsburgh digitized every image of their own set and placed it on the web for everyone to enjoy. You can see all 435 magnificent color plates here.
Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.
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