December 7 was a date circled on my calendar, but not for Pearl Harbor. Sotheby’s announced for that day an auction in London of a rare complete set of Audubon’s Double Elephant Folio, the original edition of Birds of America. The last auction a few years ago yielded a price well into seven figures, and a little inflation this time might bump the figure up a digit.
Sotheby’s was offering the treasure as “the world’s most expensive book.” Even that doesn’t do it justice. As can be seen in our gallery, the thing is four volumes, each about 40 inches high. Altogether there are 435 hand-colored plates. The set has the presence in the room of a great object.
The main reason we prize Audubon around here is that his drawings are dramatic, aesthetically exciting images. But there’s always a story attached to every plate. Audubon was an adventurer and international entrepreneur as well as an artist-ornithologist. He spent one winter marooned on a frozen river with Osage Indians. During a Kentucky trip in 1813, he witnessed an overhead migration of the now-extinct passenger pigeon that continued constantly for three days. He wrote that everyone in Louisville dined on nothing but pigeons for an entire week. This is the same character who later shared dinner with Andrew Jackson in the White House, when the two swapped stories of the frontier, and who lectured to a Cambridge University audience that included Charles Darwin, as Darwin mentions in On the Origin of Species. There are good biographies of Audubon’s life, but some ambitious novelist really ought to see what can be done with his story. The challenge would be to give continuity to the far-flung episodes of Labrador and Texas, Haiti and Edinburgh.
Acquiring an Audubon set for North Carolina was the idea of a governor, William Alexander Graham, only a few years after the work’s completion. The cost to the state was believed at the time the lowest price ever paid for Birds of America—$650. The recent London auction did, in fact, reach an eight-figure price. When Audubon was surviving on swans and pecans with the Indians, he couldn’t have imagined such success. Maybe it’s time for that novel.