Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2014 Issue

Tracking the Most Expensive Book – A Copy of Audubon's Birds of America is Sold

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A copy of the most expensive, reasonably obtainable printed book was sold at auction at the beginning of April. The double-elephant folio first edition of John James Audubon's Birds of America was hammered down at Sotheby's in New York on April 1. For years, Audubon's Birds held the record for the highest price ever reached at auction. It was pushed down a notch last fall when a copy of the Bay Psalm Book surpassed its record, but the Bay Psalm is not really obtainable. It had been 66 years since the previous copy was offered at auction, and it's unlikely that any of us will live long enough to see another one come around. A Gutenberg Bible would obtain many, many times as much as a Bay Psalm if it ever reached market, but none of those have been seen since early in the last century. An Audubon first is still obtainable, a copy coming to market every few years.

 

This can be explained by the relative commonness of a first edition Birds of America. There are believed to be at least 120 copies of it still in existence. Only 11 copies of the Bay Psalm Book are known to have survived. Many more copies of the Bay Psalm Book were said to have been printed, but it was not a spectacular production and would have been used until worn ragged. Audubon's Birds was a spectacularly beautiful book. Most copies were lovingly cared for and handed down through the generations.

 

This copy did not achieve anything like the $11.4 million record reached by the Lord Hesketh copy in 2010. It wasn't expected to be close. The Lord Hesketh copy was in pristine condition. This one was not. It wasn't in bad shape; it just wasn't particularly good either. Instead, it sold for $3,525,000. That was above the $3 million estimate of its previous owner, the Indiana Historical Society, and within the $3-$5 million estimate range given by Sotheby's.

 

The Indiana Historical Society purchased its copy in 1933, for a very reasonable price of $4,000. That was during the height of the Depression, so bargains were undoubtedly available, especially since $4,000 would have been a meaningful amount of money in those days. Nonetheless, a gain of 88,000% is more than good, even for 80 years. Whoever made that purchase on behalf of the Indiana Historical Society is owed a big “thank you.”

 

The shortcoming in terms of value with this copy is that it had been purchased by the Indiana Historical Society from a library. Library copies are often actually used, as opposed to being gently placed on a bookshelf. There was some soiling and other evidences of use. Linen backing to the plates did not help. Still, $3.5 million is serious cash. We do not know this for certain, but would not be surprised if this is the highest price ever paid for an ex-library book.

 

This was the fifth copy of this book to come up for sale at auction this century. The most recent previous copy sold in 2012 for $7,922,500. Before that, the then record setting Hesketh copy went in 2010. Another copy sold in 2005 for $5,616,000, and one sold in 2000 for $8,802,500. The 2000 sale also set a record for the most expensive printed book ever sold at auction at that time, not surpassed until the Hesketh copy a decade later. At least four copies of the book sold in the 20th century for over $1 million.

 

Along with Audubon's most famous work, one other book was sold at Sotheby's auction. It was a copy of Audubon's other great color plate book – a first edition of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. It sold for $245,000. The Indiana Historical Society purchased this book in 1951 for $900.

 

The Probability of Reappearance tool that comes with the AE Database estimates that another copy of the first edition of Birds of America will likely come around for auction again in roughly another 3 years. If you are interested in getting the next one, we suggest you start saving your pennies today.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop.</b> LINCOLN, ABRAHAM. <i>A superb collection of manuscripts signed by Lincoln and relics related to Lincoln’s death</i>. Washington, 1864-1865
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> Rare Relic of the Underground Railroad (1857). <i>$500 Reward Ran away ...</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> CARTER, SUSANNAH. <i>The Frugal Housewife,</i> (1772) the second American cookbook, plates by Paul Revere.
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> SCHIRRA, WALTER M.. Icon of the American Space Program. <i>A Complete Set of Schirra’s Flight Log Books (1947-69).</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> A fine pair of daguerreotypes, one a black nurse holding a white baby, the other the white parents. Maryland, c. 1853.
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> The Internet. (COMPUTERS.) CERF, VINTON & KAHN, ROBERT. <i>"A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication" in IEEE Transactions on Communications.</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5: Autographs</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b> Anne & Margot Frank's copy of <i>Grimm's Fairy Tales</i>, in which Anne wrote her own and Margot's name, circa 1940. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b> Albert Einstein, group of 4 letters Signed to Helmut L. Bradt regarding Bradt's emigration to the U.S., one bearing Nazi censor ink stamps, 1939-40. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b> Archive of items from Ludwig Bemelmans to producer Mary K. Frank, concerning <i>The Street <br>Where the Heart Lies</i>, 1959-62. <br>$10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5: Autographs</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b> Archive of correspondence to<br>Edwin A. Van Valkenburg from President Theodore Roosevelt and members of his family, 1913-21. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b> Oscar Wilde, manuscript notes panning a book on book collecting, circa 1886. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b><br>John Hancock, partly-printed document Signed as Governor of Massachusetts, Boston, 1781.<br>$4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5: Autographs</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b> Franz Liszt, Autograph Letter<br>Signed to Carl Gille, Rome, 1869. $4,00 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b> Joseph Conrad, photograph Signed and dated, 1918. $1,000 to $2,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b><br>Two Guns White Calf, photograph postcard Signed with his pictogram, 1929. $800 to $1,200.
  • Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts, 8 June 2016, New York
    Bonhams June 8: ARISTOTLE.<br>384-322 B.C.E. De animalibus <br>US$ 300,000-500,000.
  • Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 18. Blaeu, <i>Nova et Accuratissima Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula</i>, 1660.<br>Est. $14000-$17000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 20. Pitt, <i>Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica ac Hydrographica Tabula</i>, 1680. Est. $9500-$11000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 65. Ortelius, <i>Americae sive Novi Orbis, Nova Descriptio</i>, 1571. <br>Est. $6000-$7000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 84. Bailleul, <i>L'Amerique Divisee en Ses Principales Parties</i>, 1752.<br>Est. $19000-$22000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 99. Sayer & Bennett, <i>The American Military Pocket Atlas</i>, 1776. <br>Est. $10000-$12000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 269. Reid, <i>Plan of the City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia</i>, 1796. <br>Est. $2750-$3500
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 291. Carleton, <i>Map of Massachusetts Proper</i>, 1801. Est. $12000-$14000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 378. Keulen, <i>Pas Kaart vande Noord Oost Kust van Cuba en d'Oost Kust van Florida</i>, 1695. Est. $3250-$4000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 651. Ptolemy/Fries, <i>Tabula Superioris Indiae & Tartariae Maioris</i>, 1541.<br>Est. $3000-$4000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 688. Wit, <i>Nova Africa Descriptio</i>, 1660.<br>Est. $2750-$3500
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 706. Ortelius, <i>Maris Pacifici</i>, 1589.<br>Est. $8000-$9000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 727. Audubon, <i>Least Stormy-Petrel</i>, 1836. Est. $1400-$1700
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 741. Bordone, <i>Isolario</i>, 1547.<br>Est. $16000-$19000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 747. Teesdale, <i>A New General Atlas of the World</i>, 1835. Est. $2000-$2750
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 752. Colton, <i>Colton's Atlas of the World Volume I and II</i>, 1856.<br>Est. $2500-$3250
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 760. Prevost, <i>Histoire Generale des Voyages ... Tome Quatorzieme</i>, 1757. <br>Est. $2400-$3000
  • <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 131. After Karl Bodmer (1809-1983) Pehriska-Ruhpa Aquatint. $1500-$2500
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 212. Catlin Snow Show Dance Hand Tinted Lithograph No. 14. $1000-$2000.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 213: Hurlimann After Bodner Saukie Fox Indians Aquatint. $500-$1000.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 226: After Karl Bodmer. Dance of the Mandan Indians Aquatint. $1000-$1500.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 281: Karl Bodmer (1809-1983) Massika and Wakusasse Hand. $750-$1500.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 244: After Catlin Nah-To-Toh Pa Lithograph, Plus Another. $300-$600.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 305: History...Indian Tribes N. America, McKenney & Hall, 3. $3000-$5000.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 316: Catlin, George, "North American Indians," 1841, 2 Vols. $500-$1000.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 284: Catlin, George, "North American Indians," 1926, 2 Vols. $200-$300.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 285: Coleson, Miss Ann, "Among the<br>Sioux Indians!" 1864. $500-$1000.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 289: Heard, L.V.D., Sioux War and Massacres, 1865, First. $400-$800.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 288: Life of Life of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak or Black Hawk, 1834. $400-$800.

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