First recorded by Dutch sailors on island of Mauritius in 1598, the Dodo was a flightless bird, standing about 30 inches tall, a distant relation of the pigeon family. Less than a century after its discovery sightings of it ceased. Errol Fuller records 16 contemporary written reports and 15 illustrations (a previously unrecorded watercolour subsequently sold in these rooms, 9 July 2009, lot 596). Together with these, a skull at the Ashmolean, a foot at the British Museum (now lost) and a skull in Copenhagen constituted all the data available to ornithologists for the next two centuries. Linneaus provided the binomial name Raphus cucullatus in 1758 and then the charming synonym Didus ineptus in 1766. With no fossil remains yet discovered, some nineteenth century scholars even doubted the existence of the Dodo.
Then in 1865 George Clark (1807-73) obtained permission to dig in a bog, in south-east Mauritius, called La Mare aux Songes, and it is from this excavation that the majority of sub-fossil remains derive. Richard Owen obtained the first shipment from the site and "wasted no time in publicly announcing the discovery, staging highly publicized lectures and public engagements in January 1866, before publishing the description of the Dodo's anatomy in October of that year" (Hume et al., p. 35 ; see lot 42). Fuller lists 25 institutions with holdings of Dodo material, but very little is now in private hands. The most recent auction record we can find dates back to when the collection of G D Rowley, editor of Ornithological Miscellany, was sold at Stevens's in 1934.
The dodo is now long extinct. Our access to it is through the reports of seventeenth-century explorers, the art they produced and inspired, and the bones that have come to us from Mauritius. Of its diet, habit and call we know almost nothing; and yet it remains one of the most iconic birds ever to have lived.