World’s Most Expensive Book set a world record price of £6 million at auction in London.
It’s the most expensive book in the world, breathtaking in its stunning detail and a world away from your average bird-watcher’s guide.
And the story of the man behind the 170-year-old collection of life-sized bird paintings – many depicting awesome creatures of prey – is just as rich in its appeal.
John James Audubon was the remarkable, nature-loving frontiersman who set out into the wilderness to hunt and to paint – and left us the remarkable Birds of America, a rare copy of which is set to fetch up to £6million at auction later this year.
Audubon was born in 1785 on the turbulent Caribbean island of Haiti as the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and his mistress.
He lived through revolution, bankruptcy and rejection before achieving world-wide fame for his masterpiece on New World ornithology. He grew up in France before emigrating to the newly-formed United States of America in 1803, quickly making his way to the wild heart of the continent in Kentucky.
Without any experience of painting, the explorer decided to draw his new home country’s vast array of colourful bird life and – equipped with paints and a gun – headed south down the great Mississippi river to begin his work.
He said later of his quirky adventure in the name of art: “I took up my gun, my notebook and my pencils and went forth to the woods.”
Audubon, who later became known as The Woodsman, spent 12 years hunting every bird in America, shooting and hanging them from pieces of wire before painting them in life-like poses in full-scale.
The eccentric traveller became so obsessed with his fascinating work he was briefly jailed for bankruptcy after his passion for hunting and drawing caused him to neglect his own dry goods store in Henderson, Kentucky.
Despite his painstaking effort depicting nearly 500 of the 700 native American bird species in vivid colour – totalling 1,000 lifesize prints – his work was initially spurned by the country’s snobby East Coast intellectuals.
So Audubon was forced in 1826 to set sail for Great Britain, where his outdoorsman image and vivid illustrations caused a sensation.
The trip to these shores was a final throw of the dice – and it paid off weeks after he arrived in Liverpool in the summer of 1826.
Once on Merseyside, Audubon was taken up by the Rathbones, a well-to-do merchant family.
And he became an immediate social hit – playing the role of the rough all-American woodsman and startling the fashionable women he met at dinner parties with his “Red Indian war cry”.
But still he could not find a publisher, partly because he insisted engravings of his pictures must appear on giant sheets of paper almost 40 inches by 30 so even the largest birds such as the wild turkey could be represented life-size.
Then his remarkable paintings caused a sensation in Edinburgh when they were exhibited at the city’s newly-built Royal Institution.
People were amazed by their real-life violent depictions – such as hawks ripping up their bloodied prey.
He was introduced to the city’s top engraver, William Home Lizars, who reportedly said: “My God! I never saw anything like this before!”
With his tanned good-looks and shoulder-length hair styled with bear grease, the wolf-skin wearing French-American made a huge impression as a real life Davy Crockett.
And the Scottish capital made an equally big impression on Audubon, who returned to the city on another four occasions.
Of his first visit to Scotland, Audubon wrote: “I think the Time spent there was Six Weeks of the densest Happiness I have met with in any Part of my life.
“I believe Scotland would be the Country I should chuse (sic) to spend the Remainder of my Days in.”
Audubon died in New York in 1851 aged 65 – in time to see his astonishing book selling for $1,000 a piece.
The rare copy due to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s in London in December is one of just 11 in the world held in private hands.
Another 108 are in academic or museum collections.
One copy set a world record price of £5.7million at auction in London 10 years ago – and the latest to be sold has an estimated value of up £6million.
If you don’t have that kind of money to spare, a “Baby Elephant Folio” version, less than half the size of the original, is available for a relatively cheap £125 on Amazon.
The collection of prints in the full-size book measure more than three feet by two feet.
They needed to be that big because, as Audubon said, having a small book was “all very well with weed warblers but when you come to bald eagles you’re going to need a big book”.
Audubon himself described the size of the book as “double elephant”.
The Birds of America was issued in four volumes from 1827 to 1838.
And it was so highly regarded in his day that it was mentioned in Charles Darwin’s evolution masterpiece On the Origin of Species in 1859.
David Goldthorpe, director and senior specialist at Sotheby’s, said of Birds of America: “This magnificent collection is an example of what is known as ‘high spot collecting’ – when a collector seeks out the very best across a range of fields. The forthcoming auction offers the twin peaks of book collecting – the most expensive book in the world, Audubon’s Birds of America, and the most important book in all of English Literature,
Shakespeare’s First Folio.”
The copy going under the hammer in the Sotheby’s sale rooms had been acquired by Frederick Fermor-Hesketh, the 2nd Baron Hesketh, who died in 1955 at the age of 39.
The original watercolours for the book are housed at the at the New-York Historical Society.
In Britain, Glasgow’s Mitchell Library still has a Birds of America but Edinburgh University sold its copy in 1992 for a then world record price of £2.3million.
The Shakespeare volume includes 36 plays and only 219 copies of the 750 published are still in existence. Only two copies have such complete text and with such an early binding, according to the auction house. It is expected to fetch more than £1million at the December 7 sale.