‘Birds of America’ Book Fetches Record $11.5 Million

A hand-colored illustration from the John James Audubon book "Birds of America." The work, an early-19th-century first edition in four volumes, sold for 7.3 million pounds at Sotheby's Dec. 7 auction in London. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

A copy of John James Audubon’s early-19th-century illustrated “Birds of America” sold in London tonight for 7.3 million pounds ($11.5 million), a record for any printed work.

The book was estimated at 6 million pounds at Sotheby’s. Its price exceeded the $8.8 million paid in March 2000 by Sheikh Saud al-Thani of Qatar at Christie’s International for another copy.

The work was bought by London-based art dealer Michael Tollemache, who said, “I think it’s priceless, don’t you?”

Earlier, a copy of William Shakespeare’s 1623 First Folio had an estimate of as much as 1.5 million pounds at hammer prices and made 1.5 million pounds with fees, bought by an unidentified U.S. dealer in the room.

Ferrari, Poussin and King Arthur were among the eclectic Christmas offerings at other London auctions today that were estimated to raise as much as 67 million pounds.

The Rochefoucauld Grail, narrating the adventures of the legendary British king Arthur, was first on the block at Sotheby’s. It was bought for 2.4 million pounds with fees by the London-based dealer Sam Fogg. It was valued at between 1.5 million pounds and 2 million pounds.

This evening, David Manners, the 11th Duke of Rutland, was among several U.K. aristocrats seeking to raise cash by selling Old Master paintings.

Nicolas Poussin’s “Ordination” hung for more than 200 years at the Duke’s home, Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. It is offered by Christie’s, with an estimate of 15 million pounds to 20 million pounds, and failed to find a buyer.

Museum Money

“It was a difficult picture to sell,” London based dealer Jean-Luc Baroni said. “Poussin is an intellectual artist and not everyone likes him. It's hard to find a museum with that kind of money at the moment.”

A very different rarity offered tonight was a 1958 Ferrari 250GT LWB “Tour de France.” It had an upper estimate of 1 million pounds, the most valuable of 141 cars being sold by the London-based auction house Coys. The car failed to sell, with dealers saying it wasn't original enough for some buyers. It had been extensively restored after a crash.

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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