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A rare set of the gigantic “Birds of America” by John J. Audubon is expected to sell for as much as $12 million.

This is the book that made Audubon Audubon. Spanning four huge volumes, plus the five-volume Ornithological Biography, the American naturalist’s monumental Birds of America is the seminal birder’s guide. The tome’s complicated and protracted publication process, the stuff of book-publishing legend, ran from 1827 to 1838, and a “superlative” complete set is coming to auction in New York City.

Christie’s calls it the world’s most valuable illustrated book, and it’s a tough claim to dispute. It’s one of only 120 sets known to exist and one of just 13 left in private hands, and the auction house has estimated its value at between $8 million and $12 million. (These figures are almost certainly conservative: Way back in 2000, Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar snagged a set of the books—also at a Christie’s auction—for $8.8 million.)

This “superlative” complete set of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” crosses the block on June 14.
The Christie’s set that will cross the block on June 14 was originally owned by William Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, Fifth Duke of Portland (1800-1879); he was, as the British say, an eccentric, constantly modifying and expanding his 17,000-acre English estate, often in outlandish ways, and even building a network of subterranean tunnels and underground rooms. But despite his industriousness, he was reclusive in the extreme: The laborers and artisans who did the work—along with his own domestic staff and even his doctor—weren’t allowed to interact with him or even acknowledge his presence. He communicated orders in writing and went outdoors only at night, strolling 40 paces behind a servant holding a lamp. Apparently, though, he liked birds.

But, the books: Apart from being rare, the volumes that make up John James Audubon’s Birds of America are big. Each one measures 39.5 inches tall by 26.5 inches wide and weighs about 45 pounds. “It takes two people to maneuver a single volume,” said one Christie’s staffer, “and opening the cover is like opening your closet door.”

The set contains 435 hand-colored plates depicting 1,037 birds across 497 species. Volumes 1, 2, and 3 each hold 100 watercolor plates and Volume 4 has 135 plates. Of particular note to armchair ornithologists: Every bird in the book, even leggy species like the pink flamingo, is depicted at life-size.

True to form, Christie’s is giving the public an opportunity to see the books before the sale—three opportunities, in fact. Birds of America kicks off a three-city tour in Los Angeles (336 North Camden Drive in Beverly Hills) on Thursday, April 26 (Audubon’s birthday!), where the set will remain on view through April 28. Between May 19 and May 24, it will appear in London (8 King Street, St. James’s). Finally, from June 9 through June 13, it lands in Christie’s showroom at 20 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. The sale is set for June 14 at 2 p.m.

Proceeds from the auction will support the Knobloch Family Foundation, dedicated to “preserving the ecosystems of North America.”
“Birds of America” Plate 431, American Flamingo
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