Someone in London’s having a very happy holiday today. The present in question: One of the few copies of John James Audubon’s privately owned, first edition Birds of America, sold yesterday for the equivalent of $11.5 million. The high bidder: London dealer Michael Tollemache, who bested three others vying for the prize.
The elephant folios of roseate spoonbills, white pelicans, and 433 other bird species evoke a certain majesty, a different way of thinking about birdwatching and guides, when Audubon believed the best way to capture a bird’s details was to shoot and stuff it. With fewer than 120 known copies, the books are a piece of conservation, environmental, and art history, as well as a hot commodity. So it’s no wonder that when an original went up for auction, it earned much more than the expected $9.4 million. In fact, according to Sotheby’s, the winning price broke the world record for any book sold at auction, ever, beating out a copy of Birds of America with an $8.8 million price tag that sold in 2000.
Yesterday’s first edition was part of a collection from Frederick, 2nd Lord Hesketh, which also put on the auction block several letters signed by Queen Elizabeth I regarding the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots (they sold for half a million), plus the first collection of William Shakespeare’s plays, called First Folio (it sold for $2.5 million).
“Lord Hesketh’s magnificent copy of Audubon’s Birds of America fully deserved the extraordinary price it achieved,” said David Goldthorpe, Sotheby’s director of books and manuscripts. “It is a remarkable work—both in terms of its scale, and in terms of the dedication that went into producing it.”
Dedication indeed. The elephant folio took Audubon a painstaking 11 years to create; he finished it in 1838. Each of the hand-painted pages includes a life-size version of the subject, often posed in its natural habitat. Though Audubon died in 1851—13 years after finishing his seminal work and more than 160 years ago—and though birdwatching has changed dramatically since his time, Birds of America still stands out. “Even by today’s standards, the vividness of its illustrations of birds is extraordinary,” writes BBC Magazine, “but when it was being released in the 1830s it was mindboggling.”
For more about J.J. Audubon, check out last year's Audubon magazine’s birthday salute to our namesake.