A rare first edition of John James Audubon's sumptuously illustrated “The Birds of America,” depicting more than 400 life-size North American species in four monumental volumes, is going on the auction block for an estimated 7 million to 10 million dollars.
Considered a masterpiece of ornithology art, the 3½ -foot-tall books feature hand-coloured prints of all the species known to Audubon in early 19th century America. Audubon insisted on the book's large format — printed on the largest hand-made sheets available at the time — because of his desire to portray the birds in their actual size and natural habitat.
The set, being sold by the heirs of the 4th Duke of Portland, will be auctioned by Christie's Jan. 20. It will be accompanied by a complete first edition five-volume set of Audubon's Ornithological Biography. They will be on view at Christie's Rockefeller Centre galleries Jan. 14-19.
Experts estimate that 200 complete first edition copies were produced over an 11-year period, from 1827-1838. Today, 120 are known to exist; 107 are in institutions and 13 in private hands. They consist of 435 hand-coloured, life-size prints of 497 bird species, made from engraved copper plates based on Audubon's original watercolours.
Another complete first edition of The Birds of America sold at Sotheby's in London in December 2010 for 11.5 million dollars, a record for the most expensive printed book sold at auction.
Audubon sold the engraved plates in a subscription series in England, Europe, and North America.
The overall cost to print a set at the time was estimated to be £115.000 sterling, which would be over 2 million dollars today, said Francis Wahlgren, head of Christie's books and manuscripts.
That is why Audubon had to pre-sell to wealthy families with subscriptions to fund the production, he added.