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The $8 million Audubon book about birds, and the amazing story behind it

The $8 million Audubon book about birds, and the amazing story behind it
"Winter Hawk," from John James Audubon's “The Birds of America,” up for auction on June 14. (Christie's)

It’s a high-flying success story: A self-taught artist and immigrant defies the odds to create what is now one of the most prized illustrated books in the world, worth an estimated $8 million to $12 million.

Ornithologist John James Audubon labored over his life’s masterwork, “The Birds of America,” from 1827 to 1838. He created about 200 copies of the 3-foot-tall, four-volume set, each featuring 435 hand-colored prints of 1,037 birds. Today only 120 complete sets remain, and only 13 are in private hands. One of those is scheduled for auction June 14.

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"American Flamingo"
"American Flamingo" (Christie's)

Sven Becker, head of books and manuscripts at Christie’s New York, said the book represents so much more than a careful study of birds.

“When you look into Audubon’s own life story and the history of the publication of this book, you come to realize it’s about the American experience,” Becker said.

Audubon was born in the French colony of Les Cayes in what is now Haiti, the product of his father’s dalliance with a chambermaid. With a slave revolt brewing, Audubon’s father returned to France in the midst of the French Revolution (during which the family spent time in a dungeon for being politically suspect).

Fearful that his 18-year-old son would get conscripted in Napoleon’s army, the elder Audubon sent John on a ship to America, where his classic immigrant story began.

A self-taught artist with a fascination for birds, he dedicated himself to painting their naturalistic beauty, a manner that was considered revolutionary for a time when birds were depicted with cold, scientific precision.

"Great Blue Heron"
"Great Blue Heron" (Christie's)

After the War of 1812, Audubon lost his precious paintings when rats invaded his storage trunks, shredding the work and using the scraps to line their nests. Undeterred, Audubon started over, always with the thought of creating his comprehensive book.

When he finally tried to get it published in Philadelphia, however, he was rebuffed.

“Here comes this country bumpkin with pantaloons and long hair that he held down with bear grease, with these life-like birds,” Becker said. “The Philadelphia establishment literally blackballed him.”

Success wouldn’t come until Audubon left his wife and two sons behind for five years and voyaged to Europe, where the wild success of James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans” had created a thirst for the wilds of America.

“He came with these drawings of a land, that for Europeans, was incredibly exotic,” Becker said. “Within a month, he was dining with Sir Walter Scott and Charles Darwin.”

"Black-bellied Darter"
"Black-bellied Darter" (Christie's)

A British publisher agreed to print the engravings, which were sent to subscribers who paid Audubon in installments.

Sometime after 1838, the fourth Duke of Portland acquired the set that Christie’s will auction off. That set stayed in the same family — in the same library — for 200 years, Becker said, explaining why its condition is impeccable.

The book’s second owner, the fifth Duke of Portland, was a famous eccentric, Becker said. The duke didn’t want to see anybody, or have anybody see him, so he built a network of tunnels big enough for his horse and carriage beneath his English estate.

“There was an underground library and an underground ballroom, where presumably, no one was ever invited,” Becker said.

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The better to keep a lovely book in excellent condition.

"Blue Jay"
"Blue Jay" (Christie's)
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