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Rare copy of Audubon’s “Birds of America” bought at auction for a record $11.5 million

An original edition of “Birds of America” by John James Audubon was sold December 7 at auction by Sotheby’s in London for $11.5 million, making it the world’s most expensive printed book.

(Note: As discussed in last month’s issue, the amount the buyer pays is more than the “gavel price” which is why the price is reported as $10 million or $11.5 million.)

The book, one of the best preserved editions of Audubon’s 19th-century masterpiece with its 435 hand-colored illustrations, came from the estate of the second Baron Hesketh, a collector who died in 1955.

After an intense four-minute bidding battle at the auction house, Michael Tollemache, a London fine art dealer and bird enthusiast, bought the four-volume work.

John Audubon came to the U.S. as a young man with the intention of painting every bird in North America. He created 435 life-size bird watercolors between 1827 and 1838.

The books are more than four feet wide when opened, sometimes called a “Double Elephant Folio.” Audubon wanted to draw the birds at life size.

Though the sale set the record for a “printed book,” Bill Gates paid $31 million in 1994 for a 72-page early 16th century manuscript of scientific drawings by Renaissance artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci.

A much smaller online version of “Birds of America” is available — for free — on the

Employees of Sotheby’s show off some of the prints from “Birds of America.
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