The world’s most beautiful book set for $8m sale

John James Audubon’s stunning The Birds of America is up for auction. Chris Carter reports.

John James Audubon was 35 years old when, in 1820, he embarked on his life’s work – a catalogue of every species of bird alive in the US. He was bankrupt and fresh out of debtors’ prison. But from an early age, Audubon had developed a fascination with birds, along with a steely determination to see his project through. He would need that perseverance.

The publication of what would become The Birds of America was put back time and again as the French-American naturalist (Audubon became a naturalised US citizen in 1812) stumbled upon new subjects for his study. The printing and preparation of the plates took place between 1827 and 1838.

Sadly, Audubon’s book would become an invaluable record of species that have since gone extinct, such as the Carolina parakeet, Labrador duck and the passenger pigeon. In 1813, Audubon had witnessed the mass slaughter of this latter bird. “The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys, incessantly shooting” at the pigeons, Audubon wrote. He had thought the future of the species safe owing to its large numbers. He was wrong. A century later, the last passenger pigeon died in Cincinnati Zoo, notes Christie’s. The last Carolina parakeet was hunted down as a pest.

Audubon’s own method was to shoot the birds he wanted to draw and then use wires to place the subjects in life-like poses. In all, 1,065 life-size birds, representing 489 species, were hand-coloured on 435 etched plates. The Birds of America is today considered to be one of the most beautiful colour-plate books ever produced.

Soaring values

Things got off to a rocky start, however. Audubon had intended to produce his masterwork in the US. But his criticism of the pioneering volumes of American Ornithology, produced by Scottish-born naturalist Alexander Wilson from 1808 and completed in 1814, after Wilson’s death, put up the backs of American naturalists and engravers. (Audubon implied not unreasonably, if not diplomatically, that his drawings were better.) Undeterred, Audubon turned to Britain, where he received a better reception. Edinburgh engraver William Home Lizars started work in 1826, before handing over to Robert Havell Jr. of London. Audubon gave lectures and exhibited his works to drum up interest. Within months, a prospectus was ready and, by the following year, 100 subscribers had been signed up at around $1,000 each.

The Yorkshire Philosophical Society was one subscriber. It received an early and unusually large edition, known as the “double elephant folio”. That copy eventually found its way to Massachusetts, and from there, into a private collection. On 18 December, it heads to Sotheby’s in New York, where it is estimated to fetch between $6m and $8m. That could prove conservative given that another of the 119 sets known to still exist sold for £6.5m in 2010, also with Sotheby’s, but in London. It became the most expensive book sold at auction. Other sets have also sold for large sums. Christie’s sold a set that had belonged to the fourth Duke of Portland for $7.9m in 2012, selling it on last June for $9.7m. Not a bad return in six years.


Two Nobels under the hammer

Two Nobel Prizes in economics went up for auction with Christie’s in New York at the end of October. They were awarded to John Forbes Nash Jr. and Reinhard Selten in 1994 for their contributions to game theory, which in economics can loosely be described as the science of bargaining.

Nash first came up with the kernel of what would become the “Nash equilibrium” against the backdrop of the Cold War. American military strategists had begun to apply game theory to everything from intelligence missions to bombing patterns. Nash provided a mathematical framework to modify game theory so that it better reflected reality – in particular, by introducing the concepts of cooperative and nonco-operative games. Essential-ly, these model scenarios in which there either is or is not agreementbetween players.

“Nash’s theory of noncooperative games should… be recognised as one of the outstanding intellectual advances of the 20th century,” fellow economics Nobel laureate Roger Myerson later said. It was, according to Myserson, “one of the great watershed breakthroughs in the history of social science”. Nash’s medal sold for $735,000.

Selten received his 18-carat gold medal the same year for being the “first to refine the Nash equilibrium concept for analysing dynamic strategic interaction”, so that it could be better applied to economic analysis and policy-making. His Nobel medal fetched $225,000.


Auctions

Going…

A sale of 800 items that belonged to actress Doris Day, who died in May aged 97, is to be held next April with Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills, California, on what would have been her 98th birthday. Her Golden Globe awards are expected to fetch up to $6,000 each, a brown leather jacket worn on The Doris Day Show in the late 1960s is estimated to sell for around $3,000, a red lacquer Young Chang upright piano, that was a gift from her son, has been valued at up to $4,000, and a classic 1930 Ford convertible seen in the opening credits of her talk show Doris Day’s Best Friends could sell for up to $20,000. The proceeds from the sale will go to the Doris Day Animal Foundation, a charity she set up in 1978.

Gone…

HyperFocal: 0

A steel Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime became the world’s most expensive watch to be sold at auction when it fetched CHF31m (£24.2m) with Christie’s in Geneva last Saturday. The watch has two dials, a reversible case, and 20 complications. The price was more than ten times the watch’s pre-sale high estimate, and far in excess of the record-breaking $17.8m that was paid for the Paul Newman “Daytona” Rolex in New York in October 2017. The Grandmaster Chime is unique, a point emphasised with the words “The Only One” printed on the dial. It appeared as part of a sale called “Only Watch”, an event in which watchmakers offer one-of-a-kind timepieces to raise money for research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The sale of 50 lots raised CHF38.6m in total.