First edition of John James Audubon The Birds of America for Christie’s auction

On 20 January 2012, collectors will have a rare chance to own one of the most sought-after books of ornithological art ever created: a full-size, complete first edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America (1827-1838). Christie’s New York will offer in a special sale the sumptuously-bound “Duke of Portland” set of these 435 lushly hand-colored engravings (estimate: $7,000,000 – 10,000,000), still considered the highest achievement in ornithological art. Bibliographers calculate that the entire first edition numbered just 200 completed copies produced over an eleven-year period, of which 161 copies were created for paid subscribers. At present, only 120 complete sets are known to exist in the world, 107 in institutions and 13 in private hands.

John James Audubon The Birds of America

The monumental format of this work — a four-volume set of double-elephant folios over 3 feet in height — was dictated by Audubon’s insistence on life-size illustrations and his determination to depict all the known species found in North America. The illustrated volumes are accompanied by a complete first edition set of Audubon’s five-volume, Ornithological Biography, or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America (1831-1849), bound in a matching crimson gilt-paneled morocco leather. The set was acquired by William Henry Cavendish Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the fourth Duke of Portland (1768-1854), at some point after 1838, and has been maintained in excellent condition, with fresh, vibrant colors.

Francis Wahlgren, Christie’s International Head of Books and Manuscripts, said, “Christie’s is deeply honored to be entrusted with the sale of the exemplary copy of Audubon’s masterpiece, The Birds of America, the finest color-plate book ever produced. The excellent condition of the entire set is a testament both to the loving care taken by generations of the Portland family, as well as to the quality of book production who produced the volumes more than 170 years ago.” –

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