Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2012 Issue

Is Top Book Auction Price for 2012 about to be Revealed?

Audbirdchris2012

From Audubon's Birds of America.

Even as we close out the Top 500 auction prices from the book world for 2011 (see article in this month's issue of AE Monthly), we may already have a preview of number 1 for 2012. Of course we don't know what may yet appear with the full year still ahead, but barely three weeks into the new year, an item will be hammered down for likely three to four times the highest price paid in 2011, maybe more. At least, that's what we can expect if estimates, and past history, are any guide.

On January 20, Christie's will be auctioning a copy of the most expensive printed book to ever be sold at auction, the double elephant folio edition of John James Audubon's Birds of America. It is an absolutely spectacular book, even more a work of art than a book of science, though that was its primary role when published in the first half of the 19th century. Audubon was a great artist, not an impressionist or abstract painter, but a master at reproducing birds in great and accurate detail. In the 1820s, he put together a plan to draw the birds of America. He set out to finding specimens to paint. He sought out publishers in New York and Philadelphia, and when this failed, located one in London. Audubon determined to present his images life size where possible, necessitating the large, double elephant folio size of this work. Ultimately, that would make it so expensive he could not make any money. Audubon did not achieve financial success until he later reprinted his work in the smaller, less expensive octavo size that was within the financial means of many more potential customers. However, that is a story for later, not today.

Audubon went out and drummed up a list of pre-publication subscribers. He realized this would take a long time to complete, estimating 14 years. So, he determined to send out his printed drawings in installments. The buyer would collect the pages as they arrived, and bind them in a book once received. This process went on for years, though it completed a little earlier than Audubon estimated. The printing began in 1827, and was completed in 1838. At the end, he was still broke, but as noted earlier, he would make his fortune in the 1840s after releasing the smaller edition.

Interestingly, Birds of America is not a particularly rare book. There are books you can buy for a few hundred dollars, maybe less, with only a tiny percentage of the number of copies known to exist as there are of the Birds. There were 161 subscribers to the set, but Audubon undoubtedly printed some extras. There are estimates that around 200 copies were probably printed. Most are still around, though many were either broken up of are missing parts. In 1973, Susan Low did an inventory of the known copies of the double elephant folio edition and located 119 complete copies, 108 in institutions, and 11 in private hands. Those numbers have changed little since. With the discovery of one more copy, there are now known to be 107 copies in institutions, and 13 in private hands. Since 1973, 24 copies have been sold at auction, but 14 were sold sheet by sheet, many lacking some of the plates, and another was missing a volume.

This edition has twice set the record for the highest price ever paid for a printed book at auction. In 2000, Christie's put up the copy of original subscriber George Lane Fox. This is the one that had escaped Susan Low's 1973 inventory (she described it as missing). Against an estimate of $3-$4 million, it sold for $8,802,500. It was a record at the time. However, in 2010, Sotheby's, as part of the sale of Lord Hesketh's library, offered another copy of the first edition. This copy had belonged to the eleventh subscriber, Henry Witham. Lord Hesketh purchased it in the 1950s (when it was still somewhat affordable) for £7000. Against Sotheby's estimate of £4-6 million, it sold for £7,321,250, or around $11.5 million in U.S. dollars. That, too, was a record for a printed book. In between these auctions, the Providence Athenaeum copy sold at Christie's in 2005 for a “mere” $5,616,000.

The copy to be sold by Christie's this month, it is believed, once belonged to William Henry Cavdendish, the Fourth Duke of Portland. The earliest bookplate is that of the Sixth Duke, so it is possible it was the Fifth or Sixth Duke who originally brought it into the family, but it is believed to have started with the Fourth. He was not a subscriber, but is believed to have purchased a bound copy sometime after the work was completed in 1838. If it did belong to the Fourth Duke, he would have purchased it no later than 1854, as that is when he died.

Will this latest copy to be offered fly past the high estimate, as the previous record holders did, to set a new record, or will nervous economic times hold its price down? Stay tuned. We will know soon enough.

If you wish to compete for this book, you can find all of the details on Christie's website by clicking this link.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Carte-de-visite album with 83 images of prominent African Americans & abolitionists, circa 1860s. Sold for $47,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk,</i> Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Man Ray, <i>[London Transport] – Keeps London Going,</i> 1938. Sold for $149,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolas de Fer, <i>L’Amerique Divisee Selon Letendue de ses Principales Parties,</i> Paris, 1713. Sold for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Russell H. Tandy, <i>The Secret in the Old Attic,</i> watercolor, pencil & ink, 1944. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Walker Evans, <i>River Rouge Plant,</i> silver print, 1947. Sold for $57,500.
  • <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Adams (Richard). <i>Watership Down,</i> FIRST EDITION, author inscription on front free end paper, folded map tipped in, original boards, dust-jacket. £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bowles (John). <i>Several Prospects of the Most…la Ville de Londres, avec des Remarques Historiques fort Succinctes, qui les Regardant,</i> 20 double page engraved plates only, of 23, 1724. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Auden (W.H.). <i>Our Hunting Fathers,</i> FIRST SEPARATE EDITION, 1 of 22 copies, COPY B OF 5 PRINTED ON NORMANDIE, original patterned wrappers, Cambridge, for Frederic Prokosch, 1935. £800 to £1200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Barrie (J. M.) & Attwell (Mabel Lucie, illustrator). <i>Peter Pan & Wendy,</i> FIRST EDITION, 12 chromolithograph plates, publisher's blue cloth, original printed dust jacket, [c.1920]; and 3 others (4). £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bartolozzi (Francesco). Genius Calling Forth the Fine Arts to Adorn Manufactures and Commerce; Agriculture (Husbandry Aided by Arts and Commerce), glazed and framed. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> A collection of engraved caricatures, including Gillray ([James]) Tales of Wonder!, 1802; Rowlandson (Thomas) Sports, Smock Racing, 1811;Irish Jaunting Carr, 1814. £400 to £600
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bennett (Charles H, illustrator). <i>Æsop’s Fables,</i> 1875; Buchanan (Robert). <i>Ballad Stories of the Affections,</i> [1866]; Douce (Francis), The Dance of Death, 1833. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Chinese Illustrations. A group of 6 Cantonese rice paper illustrations, depicting scenes of torture with different instruments, gouache, c.340 x 220mm, original wrapper boards preserved, [c. 1800]. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Dulac (Edmund). <i>The Queen of Romania, The Dreamer of Dreams,</i> 5 coloured plates, [1915]; and others illustrated by Edmund Dulac. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Fronth (Per). Xingu Chronicles, the portfolio, comprising 30 plates, photogravues in colours, each signed, dated and titled in pencil, each numbered 10/35, on wove paper, 790 x 600 x 60mm, 1997. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Pasternak (Boris). <i>Doctor Zhivago,</i> FIRST ENGLISH EDITION, original red publisher’s cloth, pictorial dust jacket, 4to, Collins & Harvill Press, 1958. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> 13 sepia photographs of visitors to the Thermes Nationaux d’Aix-les-Bains, c. 150 x 105mm, c.1890 (12). £300 to £400
  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Verard, Antoine. Illuminated printed Book of Hours. Paris, 1507. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Wetterkurzschlussel. German Weather Report Codebook - for Enigma use. Berlin, 1942. Sold for $225,000
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Locke, John. Autograph Letter Signed mourning the death of his friend, William Molyneaux, 2 pp, October 27, 1698. Sold for $20,000

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