A rare first edition of John James Audubon's sumptuously illustrated "The Birds of America," depicting more than 400 life-size North American species in four monumental volumes, is going on the auction block for an estimated $7 million to $10 million.
Considered a masterpiece of ornithology art, the 3 1/2 -foot-tall books feature hand-colored prints of all the species known to Audubon in early 19th century America. Audubon insisted on the book's large format _ printed on the largest hand-made sheets available at the time _ because of his desire to portray the birds in their actual size and natural habitat.
The set, being sold by the heirs of the 4th Duke of Portland, will be auctioned by Christie's Jan. 20. It will be accompanied by a complete first edition five-volume set of Audubon's "Ornithological Biography." They will be on view at Christie's Rockefeller Center galleries Jan. 14-19.
Experts estimate that 200 complete first edition copies were produced over an 11-year period, from 1827-1838. Today, 120 are known to exist; 107 are in institutions and 13 in private hands. They consist of 435 hand-colored, life-size prints of 497 bird species, made from engraved copper plates based on Audubon's original watercolors.
Another complete first edition of "The Birds of America" sold at Sotheby's in London in December 2010 for $11.5 million, a record for the most expensive printed book sold at auction.
Audubon sold the engraved plates in a subscription series in England, Europe, and North America.
"The overall cost to print a set at the time was estimated to be 115,000 pounds sterling, which would be over $2 million today," said Francis Wahlgren, head of Christie's books and manuscripts.
That is why Audubon "had to presell to wealthy families with subscriptions to fund the production," he added.
"It was a kind of status thing. ... That's why many of these wound up in these great English homes," Wahlgren said.
Because all the birds are portrayed life size, Audubon found creative ways to paint them.
"Many of the large birds are bending down feeding, and they're contorted to fit the page. But he does it in a graceful way, very artistic," like extending a tail feather beyond the margin, said Wahlgren.
No one at that time would have considered that kind of book of ornithology, he said. In the 18th century, "you started moving into engravings but things like scale were not as important."
Audubon brought it truer to life, "furthering it as individual works of art, dealing with backgrounds, settings _ the flora and fauna that surrounded the bird. He took the aesthetic of what is a scientific book and raised it to the point of art," Wahlgren said.
"It stands among the greatest color-plate books," he added.