On 14 October, Christie’s will offer a complete subscriber’s set of Audubon’s classic 'The Birds of America' (1827-38) in the four-volume elephant edition that holds the record at auction for any printed book. This is not your average tome, of course: it comprises 435 hand-coloured engravings, some with aquatint, each of which portrays specimens Audubon shot in the field and then portrayed life-size in the studio. The plates are loose and in good condition, and though once bound, were never cut, so still retain their original dimensions. Francis Wahlgren, head of Christie’s Books department here, will sell the set en bloc with an estimate of $5/7 million, based in part on the March 2000 record sale–which he oversaw–of the Fox-Bute copy for a record $8.8 million (est. $3/4 million) to a private collector in the Middle East. The present Birds still belongs to the original subscriber, the Providence Athenaeum Library in Rhode Island, which is one of the nation’s oldest independent membership libraries. Athenaeum president Jonathan Bengtson is selling because of the need to shore up the library’s plunging endowment and upgrade the landmark building while maintaining programs. “We were insuring the Audubon for five figures [per year] and had no way to display it,” he says, noting that the library retains a royal octavo edition of the Birds as well as Audubon’s illustrated Quadrupeds. No further deaccessions are planned.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Birds fly to the block'