One Pricey Book!

An 1827 book on birds sells for more than $10 million

December 08, 2010

Naturalist John James Audubon's Birds of America is now the world's most expensive published book. It sold for $10.3 million at an auction in London, England, on Tuesday.

The oversized pages contain portraits of a flamingo, a snowy owl and 433 other birds that Audubon observed in the wild. Since Audubon insisted on painting the birds life size, the book measures a whopping 3 feet by 2 feet. Fewer than 120 copies of Birds of America are known to exist.

"The book is a major original contribution to the study of natural history in the New World," said Heather O'Donnell, a specialist with Bauman Rare Books in New York. "It's also one of the most visually stunning books in the history of print."

The Book's Beginnings

In the 1820's, Audubon set off on a quest to paint and describe all the birds of North America. He traveled down the Mississippi River with only a rifle, a drawing pad and an assistant. He painted the birds as he observed them in their natural habitat.

Audubon tried to find a printer in the United States, but none were willing to take on the book with its oversize illustrations. In 1827, he sailed to Britain and eventually found printers in London, and in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Experts say the volume is unmatched in beauty and is of great scientific value.

"If you want to buy an example of a rare work of art, this is one of the best," said Pom Harrington, owner of a rare book firm in London. "It is valuable in its artistic nature because it is so well drawn."

Do I Hear 31 Million?

In recent years, a book of William Shakespeare's complete works sold at auction for about $5.6 million. A Geoffrey Chaucer collection sold for more than $4 million. Shakespeare was a famous English poet and playwright who lived in the late 1500's. Chaucer was a famous English poet who lived in the 1300's.

While Birds of America holds the record for a published book, a 72-page notebook of Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci's handwritten notes and illustrations sold for even more. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and the second richest man in the world, bought the notebook in 1994 for $31 million.

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