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Why does John James Audubon’s Birds of America break records?


It’s a good question. Why does this book, or rather books as Birds of America is a four-volume set, sell for such massive prices? John James Audubon’s Birds of America already holds the record selling price for a printed book when a copy went for $$11.5 million in December 2010.

On 20 January, another first edition copy comes up for auction at Christie’s and there is much speculation that the old record will fall. Things like recessions go out the window when Birds of America first editions come up for sale.

Birds of America is most significant for its sheer beauty. It’s a landmark book because of its illustrations. Audubon’s 435 hand-colored engravings are life-size. The first edition four-volume set was printed in the double-elephant format, which means they are huge books – almost 40 inches high.

Aside from being famous in the rare book world, Birds of America has also great ornithological importance. Some of the birds Audubon painted are extinct and he also discovered new species. The book was published in parts between 1827 and 1838, and Audubon funded the first editions himself. He toured to promote his artwork and sold prints – on a pay-as-you-go subscriber basis – to the rich and famous of the era.

The set being auctioned at the forthcoming auction is in excellent condition and has been in the same family – the Duke of Portland’s – for generations. Experts say around 200 copies were produced and Christie’s has reported that only 120 complete sets are known to exist. Sadly, many copies have been broken up. There are rare books that are scarcer but most Birds of America first edition copies are owned by institutions, who will never part with them. It’s major news when a first edition comes up for sale. We’ll be watching with great interest.

(Pictures courtesy of Christie’s)

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Richard Davies

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