- Associated Press - Thursday, September 9, 2010

LONDON (AP) - A rare copy of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” billed as the world’s most expensive book, is up for sale alongside a first edition of Shakespeare’s plays at an auction to set book lovers’ pulses racing, Sotheby’s said Thursday.

One of only 100 or so remaining copies of “Birds of America” is valued at between 4 million pounds and 6 million pounds ($6.2 million and $9.2 million), while a Shakespeare First Folio from 1623 is expected to fetch at least 1 million pounds ($1.54 million).

Sotheby’s books expert David Goldthorpe said the two tomes are “the twin peaks of book collecting.” The books come from the estate of the 2nd Baron Hesketh, an aristocratic book collector who died in 1955. The auction house is selling them in London on Dec. 7.

Another complete copy of “Birds of America” was sold by Christie’s for $8.8 million in 2000, a record for a printed book at auction.

It is one of the most significant _ and beautiful _ published works of natural history, and rarely comes up for sale. Only 119 copies remain, and all but a handful are in museums, libraries and universities.

The collection of 435 hand-colored prints, made from engravings of Audubon’s illustrations, measures more than 3 feet by 2 feet (90 centimeters by 60 centimeters) because Audubon wanted to paint the birds life size.

“That’s all very well with weed warblers, but when you come to bald eagles you’re going to need a big book,” Goldthorpe said. “Audubon himself described the size as a ‘double elephant’ folio.”

A pioneering French-American ornithologist and entrepreneur whose business ventures took him across the expanding United States, Audubon came to Britain in 1826 after failing to raise money to print his book in America. His outdoorsman image and vivid illustrations made a strong impression.

“He caused a sensation,” said Goldthorpe. “It was as if someone in a (James) Fenimore Cooper novel had ended up in a Jane Austen novel.”

Audubon sold the book on a subscription basis to wealthy collectors. The copy for sale was No. 11, bought by paleontologist Henry Witham.

The December sale also includes medieval illustrated manuscripts, work by William Caxton, England’s first printer, and letters written by Queen Elizabeth I and her ministers about the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots.


Online: http://www.sotheby’s.com