Wednesday 8 December 2010

Audubon "Birds Of America" sells for £7.3 million

A book on birds became the world's most expensive ever when Sotheby's last night auctioned a copy of John James Audubon's Birds of America for £7.3 million. Those of us who buy paperbacks rather than hardbacks and who frequent charity shops and Amazon book sales will be a little taken aback at the price.

Author Of The Week: Carl Hiaasen

If you haven't heard of him, Audubon was, in the first half of the nineteenth century, the USA's foremost wildlife artist. His major work was Birds of America -- containing 435 hand-drawn pictures of native birds. The volume is 3 feet by 2 feet in size as he wanted his illustrations to be mainly lifesize. The illustrations, from the few dozen I've seen referenced, are stunning in detail and accuracy.

john james audubon, birds of america
John James Audubon. With a gun.

JJ was the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and plantation owner and his French mistress, born in the then Santa Domingua, raised in France and sent to America to escape Napoleon's conscription. Interested in wildlife from an early age he tried his hand at business with mixed success, married and had two sons (and a daughter who died in infancy). He conducted the world's first known banding experiment, tying string around the legs of Eastern Phoebes and subsequently showing that they returned annually to the same nesting ground.

After bankruptcy he sailed off down the Mississsippi in 1819 -- wife Lucy left to support the kids by tutoring plantation owners' sons -- to document the wildlife. In 1826 he sailed to England where he was a roaring success. The final print of the 435 was issued in 1836. The magnificent work Birds of America was born.

The Audubon Society was founded in his honour by a group of very rich people. Now renamed just Audubon, it is a massive organisation which lobbies on conservation in the USA.

Okay, potted history over: the work is magnificent, the book sumptuous, the history amazing but surely the price is ludicrous. Commentators have tried to defend it by saying that more cash would have been raised by splitting the book up and selling illustrations individually -- I wouldn't want them as my barrister!

At the best of times I resent major works going to selfish rich people: at a time when those rich people are cutting the incomes of poor people it's even more distressing. We sneer at footballers who buy mock Georgian mansions and install gold taps and leopardskin rugs throughout -- isn't this an even more vulgar display?

And yet, I remember going into a secondhand bookdealer's in Hay On Wye, just out of Uni with my first credit card in hand, £500 credit limit. There was a beautiful atlas, plates crying out "buy me, buy me". Price, just £500. I resisted its siren call but still have twinges of regret to this day. I'd have been buying a (to me) expensive book I couldn't afford: someone has bought a slightly-more expensive book that I assume he can afford. And that's not a sexist "he" -- such buyers are always oil-rich Texans or Japanese corporations run exclusively by men. If I'd bought the atlas would I have been one step away, income permitting, from paying a small country's GDP for a Van Gogh to hang in the executive washroom?

So, is any book worth one and a half million copies of Nigel Slater's Toast? Will the volume now be lost to the public? Or even worse, eventually available for two minutes a year in one of those atrocious inheritance tax scams? Are you annoyed or envious?

Audubon's website

University of Pittsburgh: nicely presented set of illustrations

A cheaper version from Amazon:

A more-affordable calendar for 2011:


Paul said...

Just struck me, wouldn't it be a hoot if someone found a hundred copies in a nice dry basement ...

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