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Rare bird book fetches $9.6 million at auction

A first edition of John James Audubon’s famed The Birds of America has sold at Christie’s for $9.6 million and was purchased by an anonymous buyer. The book features more than 400 hand-coloured illustrations and over 1000 different birds. It is one of just 13 that is thought to remain in the hands of a private collector.

Considered to be the finest colour-plate book ever produced, The Birds of America was first published as a series and showcased Audubon’s lifelong mission to find and paint every species of bird in North America. The serial publication meant that complete sets were rare. Another complete set was previously sold for $10.27 million in 2010.

About John James Audubon

John James Audubon was an American ornithologist, naturalist, and artist. Born in France, he was sent to America by his father to escape the Napoleonic wars. His possessed a huge passion for birds and he is notable for his illustrations of the various species of North America in their natural habitats.

In 1826, at the age of 41, Audubon travelled to England to show his growing catalogue of work to prominent people in an attempt to gain the funding he needed to continue his studies. His illustrations met with great success and he was able to raise enough money to begin publishing The Birds of America.

Expensive Book

The pages were published in stages and were organised so as to take the reader on a visual tour of America. This approach met with some criticism as other naturalists felt that the work should be organised more logically.

It cost $115,640 to publish the entire book (over $2,000,000 today). This huge sum was paid via advance subscriptions, exhibitions, oil painting commissions, and animal skins. The latter having been taken from animals hunted by Audubon himself. The book was created between 1827 and 1839 and it took 14 years in the field for Audubon to observe and paint each species.

Admirers and Accolades

King George IV was among the many admirers of Audubon and he contributed to the funding of the book. London's Royal Society recognised Audubon's achievement by duly electing him as a fellow. Audubon made a presentation in Edinburgh to attract funding and Charles Darwin was in the audience!

Audubon himself could never have imagined that his book would achieve such impressive prices in the future. As a young man he went bankrupt and was thrown into jail for debt! Audubon and his wife Lucy were always short of money to the extent that following his death in 1851, Lucy was forced to melt down the plates used to print The Birds of America so she could sell the metal.


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