World's most expensive book -- by Audubon -- sells for $11.5 million [updated]
Naturalist John James Audubon's "Birds of America" sold at auction in London on Tuesday for $11.5 million, making it the world's most expensive book. The book, which was sold by the auction house Sotheby's, was purchased by Micahel Tollemache, a London art dealer who was present in the room.
"Birds of America" is oversize -- more than 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide -- with 435 illustrations. When first published in 1827, the images were printed in black and white and then hand-colored by specialists.
The combination of accuracy and artistry make Audubon's work unique. The first plate alone -- of a wild turkey -- could fetch $200,000. The Associated Press reports:
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. And collectors hold Audubon in such reverence that the notion of ripping apart a perfect copy would be akin to sacrilege.
"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."
A much smaller, low-resolution -- but entirely free -- version of "Birds of America" is on view on the Audubon website.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
[Update, Dec. 8 at 12 p.m.: An earlier version of this post, based on a report from the Associated Press, said that the book had been purchased for $10 million by an anonymous telephone bidder. The bidder was, in fact, outbid by Tollemache.]
Photo: A Sotheby's employee with a page from "Birds of America" by John James Audubon. Credit: Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters