Nature Studies: $5m for a book? That’s for the birds – or the illustrations of them at least

Liverpool Central Library nearly lost this masterpiece during the Blitz

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The greatest natural history book ever produced is up for sale next week and is likely to fetch millions, whether that’s in dollars or pounds. A copy of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America will be auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York on Tuesday 1 April, with an estimate of $3 to $5m (£1.8 to £3m), but if the last few sales are anything to go by, the estimate may be exceeded by as much as 100 per cent.

We are talking the most expensive pages in the world here: in December 2010 a copy was sold at Sotheby’s in London for £7,321,250 ($11.5m at the exchange rate then current), which is the record auction price for a printed book, more than has been paid for any Shakespeare First Folio or Gutenberg Bible.

In fact, since the Millennium, four copies have been sold, and the other three have gone in the US for $8.8m, $7.9m and $6.6m respectively.

What makes The Birds of America so sought after? Last week in Liverpool I saw for myself: the 435 hand-coloured engravings are quite simply the most spectacular images of birds ever created, lustrously, dazzlingly colourful and unforgettably dramatic. They are life-sized, so the famous scarlet flamingo, for example, is bent double – but quite naturally – to fit in the frame. Even as reproductions they look wonderful; the real thing takes your breath away.

It was in Liverpool that I gazed at them, because the city has a strong connection with the long-haired, Franco-American frontiersman-artist: it was there he landed in 1826 when he came to Britain to have his bird paintings, mostly watercolours, engraved for publication, as the necessary expertise was not then available across  the Atlantic.

Audubon was made welcome by several of the leading Liverpool merchant families and given introductions which helped him find engravers, first in Edinburgh and then in London; and between 1827 and 1838 the prints of The Birds of America were run off and coloured, in the largest format then possible, the colossal “double elephant folio”, measuring 39 inches by 26.

Of the 200 or so sets produced for subscribers (the precise number is unknown), about 80 have been broken up into individual prints; 120 full sets are known to remain, 13 in private hands and 107 in public institutions, and the Liverpool Central Library is one of the latter.

Its copy of The Birds of America, in four immense leather-bound volumes, very nearly did not make it through the last war, because during the Liverpool Blitz in May 1941 a German incendiary bomb hit the library and caused enormous damage to books; the Audubons were rescued by the reference librarian from a flooded basement, suffering some water marking around the print margins, but otherwise intact.

For a long time they languished unseen in storerooms; but in recent years the city has woken up to its Audubon heritage, and this has become a key feature of the revived Central Library, reopened last year after a £50m redevelopment which has been done with great panache.

In the library’s Oak Room, one of the volumes is now on permanent display, and every week or so a page is turned to reveal a different print and a different bird species. (Many of the other prints can be viewed in a state-of—the-art electronic display). Currently it is the turn of a predator, the red-tailed hawk: with typical drama the print shows a male and a female battling furiously for possession of a hare, in its specially-made temperature-controlled glass case (which is so big that, as a passing Scouse wag remarked, “A family of seven could live in that”).

Steven Dearden, a senior library official who knows and loves the Audubons, not only showed me the Oak Room installation, but also the other three volumes, brought out especially from the locked cage they are kept in. We turned the pages reverently wearing white cotton gloves, each one meriting a gasp for its colours and its excitement – the purple gallinule! The black-belled darter! The roseate spoonbill! The great auk! (This last example is one of six species Audubon illustrated which are now extinct.)

Thousands of tourists head for Liverpool every year and take in The Beatles Story Experience. They should not miss the Audubon experience, which is just as compelling.

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