September 10, 2010
John James Audubon‘s Birds of America holds the record as the world’s most expensive book. Not to buy, but to publish. Audubon had to raise more than $115,000 in the early 1800s ($2 million in today’s dollars) for a print run of the multi-volume, large (39 x 26 inches) work that contained 435 hand-colored, life-size prints of nearly 500 bird species. Fewer than 200 copies were created, and they didn’t make Audubon rich (that required a printing of a smaller, octavo-format book that was more accessible and more affordable).
These paintings are how we recognize many of the birds we know so well in this country, and the only way we can remember some that have since become extinct. They’re not necessarily the most accurate, though, as Glen Chilton noted last year in The Curse of the Labrador Duck:
Of course, when I say that it was Audubon’s goal to “study and paint” birds in Labrador, I mean that he planned to shoot a lot of birds, bring their corpses back to camp, stick wires up their bums to hold them in place, twist them into postures they never could have attained in life, and then paint them. You don’t have to look at many Audubon paintings to get a sense of what I mean.
Those unnatural postures don’t seem to bother the rest of us, though. And we marvel at the paintings when we get to see them. But most of us will never see an original copy of Birds of America. There are only 119 complete copies in existence, and most of them are in libraries and museums (the Smithsonian Institution owns several). December 7, though, will be a lucky day for one person who has the interest—and the money—to become an owner. That’s the day when Sotheby’s London auctions off a copy. The winner have to have a lot of money: the copy (No. 11, originally bought by paleontologist Henry Witham) is valued at 4 million to 6 million pounds ($6.2 million to $9.2 million). The last copy to reach the auction block sold for $8,802,500 in 2000.
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