A rare copy of John James Audubon’s early 19th century illustrated book Birds of America sold at auction on Tuesday night in London for £7.3 million ($11.5 million), a record for any printed work. 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 wealthy collectors.
Born in Haiti in 1785, Audubon grew up in France and emigrated to the U.S. at 18. He had been fascinated by birds since childhood and was determined to illustrate America’s breeds more realistically than ever before. Using a technique which would shock modern wildlife artists, Audubon hunted them down and shot them before propping them up on wires to paint. Each drawing would take about 60 hours to complete.
Overall, 120 copies of Birds of America are known to exist, with 107 owned by museums and libraries. The book contains 1,000 illustrations of about 500 breeds of birds and took Audubon 14 years to complete. Because each picture is so valuable, there have been fears the volume will be broken up and sold as separate works of art. However, experts believe that’s unlikely. The tome is probably more valuable intact.
While the Audubon volume holds the record for a printed book, a 72-page notebook of Leonardo da Vinci’s handwritten notes and illustrations went for even more. Known as the Leicester Codex, the collection was bought by Bill Gates in 1994 for $31 million.