Famed Audubon tome fetches $10.2 million

John James Audubon’s famed “Birds of America” sold for nearly $10.3 million at auction on Tuesday, making it the world’s most expensive published book.

The work consists of 435 hand-colored, life-size prints of 497 bird species, made from engraved copper plates of various sizes. They were printed on sheets measuring about 39 by 26 inches, according to The Associated Press.

The book, written and illustrated by the famed ornithologist, naturalist and painter, is one of just 119 complete copies known to exist. Of those, 108 are in museums and libraries.

The book was auctioned by Sotheby’s of London from the collection of the late 2nd Baron Hesketh, an aristocratic book collector.

The tome was sold 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, according The Associated Press.

“The tome is probably more valuable intact,” it reported. “And collectors hold Audubon in such reverence that the notion of ripping apart a perfect copy would be akin to sacrilege.”

Born in Haiti and reared in France, Audubon began to study American birds shortly after arriving in the United States in 1803. His goal was to illustrate his findings in a more realistic manner than most artists did then.

He began conducting the first known bird-banding on the continent, and also began drawing and painting birds, and recording their behavior.

Audubon spent years traveling the backwoods, hunting, sketching and painting the scenery. These efforts would become the basis for “Birds of America.”

In 1824, Audubon traveled to Philadelphia to seek a publisher for his bird drawings, but was turned down. Two years later, he took his growing collection of work to England.

The British were dazzled by Audubon’s images of backwoods America and its natural attractions. He raised enough money to begin publishing “Birds of America.”

“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.”

Part naturalist and part artist, Audubon possessed an unequaled ability to observe, catalog and paint the birds he observed in the wild. His book, originally published in 1827, is unmatched in its beauty and is also of considerable scientific value, justifying its stratospheric price tag, experts say.

The “Birds of America” plates were printed in black and white and then hand-colored by “the best artists of the time,” Harrington said.

The collection, made from engravings of Audubon’s watercolors, measures more than 3 feet by 2 feet because Audubon wanted to paint the birds life size, according to wire service.

(Above: Louisiana Heron, by John James Audubon)

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