Posted by: atowhee | January 21, 2012


For the second time in two years John James (nee Jean Rabine) Audubon has set a record for being the creator of the world’s most valued book.  A complete four-volume set of his original life-size prints of North American birds has just sold for $11.5 million at a Christie’s auction.  Apparently this set was bought by a private collector.  Nearly all the 120 known existing sets of the original Audubon elephant folios are in institutional collections now.  Nobody else has ever printed books of the same size.  The original subscribers to Audubon’s work were nearly all private collectors. There were very few public libraries or museums in the 1830s as most wealth was still privately held.  In the U.S., for example, the Smithsonian had not been established.  Most of Audubon’s subscribers were in England and France because few Americans could afford the books.  And Audubon was on the outs with the main contemporary American scientific community in Philadelphia.  It was America’s great wealth following the U.S. Civil War that began to repatriate copies of the elephant folios.  Though the birds and art were thoroughly American the engraving, printing and hand-coloring of the plates was all done in England.

A few of the naturalists and artists who helped Audubon get European subscribers were rewarded with namesake birds as Audubon began published the original accounts of hitherto undescribed American bird species: Swainson, MacGillivray, Bewick, Traill. Other birds were named for Americans who helped Audubon financially or on collecting expeditions: Bachman, Harris, Lincoln, Spague.  Two of Rev. Bachman’s daughters married Audubon’s two sons.  Bachman would go on to write nearly all of the “Audubon” book on viviparous animals (mammals).

Audubon published his first volume of bird pictures in 1832.  The final volume was distributed in 1839.  By that time Audubon was 54 years old.  He’d travelled North America from Labrador to New Orleans and Florida.  Audubon died in New York City in 1851 and his work on mammals was finished posthumously.

Lke many pioneering naturalists, Audubon made some discoveries that proved to be other than what he thought.  Brewer’s Duck turned out to be a hybrid of Mallard and Gadwall.  Bird of Washington turned out to be first-year Bald Eagle.

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