|John James Audubon, Great Blue Heron, c1827-1839|
This past January, in New York, a first edition copy of John James Audubon's The Birds of America was purchased for $7.9 million by an American collector. As pricey as that is, another copy sold for $11.5 million in 2010. However, keep in mind these are special books. They include 435 hand-colored, life sized prints of 497 bird species; a few of which have since gone extinct. Because of it's size (about 39 x 26 inches) the collection of prints is sometimes referred to as a double elephant folio - it's big! Experts estimate that 200 complete first-edition copies were produced over an 11-year period, beginning in1827. Today, 120 are known to exist, the majority owned by museums or libraries.
Audubon portrayed birds in a realistic style not previously seen in scientific or popular literature. The influence of his artwork was immediate and pervasive. His work endures today, not only for its beauty, but also for it's accuracy and fine detail.
In 2007, the University of Pittsburgh, which owns a complete collection of Birds of America, undertook a project to digitize every colored plate, as well as Audubon's Ornithological Biography, and, for the first time, presented the complete set for public viewing on the internet.
If you would like to check out our comparatively tiny copy (5x8.5 inches, printed in 1950), it's on the shelf, waiting for you, along with our five volume set of The Complete Audubon (Birds of America and Quadrupeds of North America). To round out your adventure, read John James Audubon: The Making of An American by Richard Rhodes and learn about the amazing naturalist who changed the way we view the natural world. If your tastes run more towards fiction, try Fever Dream by D. Preston. In the latest suspense novel featuring the enigmatic Agent Pendergast, we learn that his wife's murder was linked to her fascination with Audubon's life and family's copy of the giant book.