x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Audubon volume fetches Dh42m at Sotheby's

What does it mean when a rare picture book (albeit a beautiful one) goes considerably higher in the bidding than a first-folio Shakespeare?

A white pelican from Audubon's Birds of America. Sotheby's Auction House / EPA
A white pelican from Audubon's Birds of America. Sotheby's Auction House / EPA

Bird-watching, as I'm sure you'll agree, has not always been exactly the most lucrative of hobbies. But travelling across America to shoot hundreds of them before painting them and turning your work into a book? Well that could be an entirely different story.

So it has proved for John James Audubon, or rather for collectors of his Birds of America, which has been called "the most expensive book in the world". A copy was sold for £7.3 million (Dh42.3m) at Sotheby's in London this month.

Expected to fetch only a measly £6m, the exquisite volume is one of 119 copies still known to exist and had previously been part of a collection belonging to Lord Hesketh. The winning bid came from Michael Tollemache, a London-based book dealer, who told reporters the volume was "priceless".

Audubon, an ornithologist, artist and naturalist who died in 1851, included an incredible 1,000 hand-coloured, life-size images in the book, which took him roughly 12 years to complete and describes almost 500 birds from all over .

More than 100 of the remaining copies belong to museums and libraries, and the rest, presumably, to private collections.

At the same sale a rare copy of William Shakespeare's First Folio sold for a paltry £1.5m. Bard or bird? It would seem there is no contest, unless it's simply that there is less demand among the super-rich for books without pictures.