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Audubon's 'Birds' soars to record price

Masterwork fetches $10.27 million at auction.

LONDON - It's quite a nest egg. John James Audubon's

Birds of America,

a rare blend of art, natural history, and craftsmanship, fetched more than $10 million at auction Tuesday, making it the world's most expensive published book.

With its 435 hand-colored illustrations of birds drawn to size, the volume is one of the best-preserved editions of Audubon's 19th-century masterpiece. The sale at Sotheby's auction house had been anticipated for months by collectors.

The book sold for $10.27 million (6.5 million pounds) to an anonymous collector bidding by telephone, the auction house said.

"Audubon's Birds holds a special place in the rare-book market," said Heather O'Donnell, a specialist with Bauman Rare Books in New York. "The book is a major original contribution to the study of natural history in the New World."

"It's also one of the most visually stunning books in the history of print: The scale of the images, the originality of each composition, the brilliance of the hand coloring."

Then there's the wow factor.

"No one can rival John James Audubon for frontier glamour," O'Donnell said. "The story of his lonely journey through the American wilderness and his struggle to record what he saw there gives the Birds a resonance that no other book can match."

Near Valley Forge

Audubon came to the United States from France at age 18 and lived in Montgomery County for the next three years, developing his technique as he roamed the forests and fields around Mill Grove, his home near Valley Forge.

Of 120 known full sets of the book, four are in this region, said Jeff Holt, a West Deptford paralegal and amateur ornithological historian who cowrote The Composite Plates of Audubon's "Birds of America."

They are at Mill Grove, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the University of Pennsylvania, he said.

"There have been some magnificent bird illustrators over the years," Holt said, "but I think most people agree that historically, Audubon combined both his ornithological knowledge with an artistic dimension that has been unequaled. And I think the prices reflect that."

Gutenberg Bible

Pom Harrington, owner of the Peter Harrington rare-book firm in London, said it had been 10 years since the last complete edition of

Birds of America

was auctioned, going for a then-record $8.8 million.

Holt said another copy - unbound and in poor condition - was sold at Christie's for $5.6 million in 2005.

Harrington estimated that a complete Gutenberg Bible in good condition could sell for $30 million to $50 million, but none has been sold in more than 30 years.

While the Audubon volume holds the record for a published book, a 72-page notebook of Leonardo da Vinci's handwritten notes and illustrations known as the Leicester Codex was bought by Bill Gates in 1994 for $31 million.

The Birds of America plates were printed in black and white and then hand-colored by "the best artists of the time," Harrington said.

The collection, made from engravings of Audubon's watercolors, measures more than 3 feet by 2 feet because Audubon painted the birds life size.

Audubon, who died in 1851, represents a unique figure in American history - a Renaissance man with shades of Huckleberry Finn. He made an epic voyage down the Mississippi - but with a scientist's inquisitive nature.

Taking only a rifle, an assistant, and a drawing pad, he made illustrations of as many birds as he could find.

Unable to find a printer here, he sailed to Britain, eventually finding printers in London and Edinburgh, Scotland.