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Audubon's Birds of America Set to Fly at Christie's New York
January 15, 2012  | 
On 20 January 2012, collectors will have a rare chance to own one of the most sought-after books of ornithological art ever created: a full-size, complete first edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America (1827-1838). Christie’s New York will offer in a special sale the sumptuously-bound ―Duke of Portland set of these 435 lushly hand-colored engravings (estimate: $7,000,000 – 10,000,000), still considered the highest achievement in ornithological art. Bibliographers calculate that the entire first edition numbered just 200 completed copies produced over an eleven-year period, of which 161 copies were created for paid subscribers. At present, only 120 complete sets are known to exist in the world, 107 in institutions and 13 in private hands.

The monumental format of this work — a four-volume set of double-elephant folios over 3 feet in height — was dictated by Audubon’s insistence on life-size illustrations and his determination to depict all the known species found in North America. The illustrated volumes are accompanied by a complete first edition set of Audubon’s five-volume, Ornithological Biography, or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America (1831-1849), bound in a matching crimson gilt-paneled morocco leather. The set was acquired by William Henry Cavendish Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the fourth Duke of Portland (1768-1854), at some point after 1838, and has been maintained in excellent condition, with fresh, vibrant colors.

Francis Wahlgren, Christie’s International Head of Books and Manuscripts, said, ―Christie’s is deeply honored to be entrusted with the sale of the exemplary copy of Audubon’s masterpiece, The Birds of America, the finest color-plate book ever produced. The excellent condition of the entire set is a testament both to the loving care taken by generations of the Portland family, as well as to the quality of book production who produced the volumes more than 170 years ago.”

A Masterpiece of Ornithological Art
Born in 1785 in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) as the illegitimate child of Jean Audubon, a French sea captain and his Creole mistress, Audubon and his half-sister spent their early years with their father in France. It was here, during long countryside rambles that young Audubon collected bird specimens to be stuffed and drawn, and began his lifelong fascination with birds. In 1803, following the loss of the family fortune, John James was sent to Philadelphia, where he met Lucy Bakewell, the daughter of a prosperous neighbor. They married in 1808 and moved to Kentucky.

The largely unspoiled wilderness of Kentucky provided Audubon with a vast hunting ground for birds, allowing him to continue his specimen collection and artistic endeavors. Without any artistic training to speak of, Audubon developed a new method of mounting dead birds on wires as an aid to delineation. In 1810, Audubon briefly met Alexander Wilson, the distinguished ornithologist, who had published the first two volumes of the artist-author’s pioneering work American Ornithology. Although the idea of publication first entered his mind on this occasion, it was not until 1820, that Audubon came into his full powers as a brilliant painter of birds and master of design.

To create the greatest illustrated book on birds, Audubon worked with Robert Havell of London, a senior member of the well-known family of artists, and his son Robert Jr., an accomplished engraver in his own right who at the time worked for Colnaghi. Audubon’s masterpiece The Birds Of America is possibly the highest achievement in ornithological art today.

The Portland Family
The Portland family descended from Hans Willem Bentinck (1649-1709), one of William of Orange’s closest allies during and after his ascent to the English throne in 1688. In recognition of his friendship and support, Bentinck was created the 1st Earl of Portland; his eldest son Henry succeeded him as Earl and was created 1st Duke of Portland in 1716. Bentinck’s grandson married Lady Margaret Cavendish Holles Harley, the greatest heiress of her day, in 1734, herself a collector of natural curiosities and an eminent scientist. Their son, William Bentinck, the 3rd Duke, was twice Prime Minister in 1783 and 1807-09. In the late 19th century the 6th Duke is best known for his magnificent underground buildings in Nottinghamshire.

Auction: Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts including Americana January 20
Viewing: Christie’s Rockefeller Galleries January 14-19

For more information:
Complete catalogue available online at or via the Christie’s iPhone app