John James Audubon, The Birds of America; from Original Drawings, 38¼ x 25¼ (97.7 x 64.5 cm). Published by the Author, London 1827-1838. Sold for $9,650,000 on 14 June at

‘My highlight of 2018’ — The Portland Audubon

Books and Manuscripts specialist Sven Becker on John James Audubon’s ornithological masterpiece The Birds of America, one of the most valuable printed books in the world

‘On the face of it, this is just a book about birds,’ says Head of Books and Manuscripts Sven Becker, ‘but in fact The Birds of America  is so much more than that — it’s the very embodiment of America and the American experience.’

Becker acknowledges this is something of a grand statement, but he has good reason: the life of the ornithological watercolourist John James Audubon (1785-1851) is quite a story. ‘He was an immigrant from Haiti, via France, where he lived through the Reign of Terror,’ says the specialist. ‘He arrived in America at the age of 18, and through total dedication and countless personal setbacks [including yellow fever and a debtors’ prison] he became America’s first great watercolour artist. If there is a more American story than that please tell me!’

Perhaps the worst setback occurred 10 years into his groundbreaking project to document the continent’s birdlife. ‘He lost hundreds of drawings when rats got into his storage case and shredded them,’ says Becker. ‘He had to start all over again. Then he went bankrupt and couldn’t find a publisher.’ 

The book was rejected for its radical content. ‘They may look like innocent bird drawings to our modern eye, but natural history illustrations were very conservative back then,’ explains the specialist.

‘Audubon’s wonderful drawings hold a mirror to the young nation’s incredible natural wealth’ — Sven Becker

The Birds of America, which was eventually published in Europe, sold at Christie’s in June for $9,650,000. It is an extraordinary undertaking — 435 hand-coloured plates, which took decades to produce and saw the indefatigable self-taught naturalist travelling for years at a time across the great wilderness, facing extreme danger in his ambitions to create a great work of art and a scientific study of avian species. 

‘At that time, America was a nation of six million people, most of whom lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic coast,’ says Becker. ‘The rest of the country was unknown. Essentially, Audubon revealed America to itself.’

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The Portland Audubon is a particularly fine example of the book. Not only is it in superb condition, but it also has great provenance, having been bought in 1838 by the influential Portland family (the 3rd Duke of Portland, William Cavendish-Bentinck, had been Prime Minister of Britain).

‘It's the biggest book and the best of its kind,’ Becker continues. ‘Audubon’s wonderful drawings hold a mirror to the young nation’s incredible natural wealth. It tells so many stories. Each time I look at it I find something new.’