The sky was serene, the air perfumed, and thousands of melodious notes, from birds unknown to me, urged me to arise and go in pursuit of those beautiful and happy creatures.
— John James Audubon
New York – On June 14, 2018, collectors will have a rare chance to own one of the most sought-after books of natural history ever created: a full-size, complete first edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America (1827-1838). Christie’s New York will offer in a special sale the exceptional “Duke of Portland” set of these 435 lushly hand-colored engravings (estimate: $8,000,000–12,000,000), among the most superlative copies in private hands of the finest color-plate book ever produced. Prior to the dedicated sale, the book will tour to Christie’s Los Angeles (April 26-28) and to Christie’s London (May 19-24), where it will be presented for public exhibition. Proceeds from this sale will benefit the Knobloch Family Foundation and its mission to preserve plants, animals and natural habitats through the protection and conservation of land and ecosystems, and to support the advancement of methods for valuing shared natural resources.
Audubon’s greatest triumph, The Birds of America, is considered one of the world’s most preeminent natural history documents and visually arresting works of art. Issued in 87 fascicles of five sheets each, the double-elephant-folio edition contains 435 hand-colored prints featuring 1,037 life-size birds, representing 500 species reflecting his determination to depict all the known species found in North America. This luxurious edition is the most spectacular color folio print series ever produced and is acknowledged as the finest work of colored engraving with aquatint in existence. The towering format of this work, a four-volume set of double-elephant folios over 3 feet in height, was dictated by Audubon’s insistence on life-size illustrations—from the flamingo down to the hummingbird—even if the former had to curve its neck in an elegant arabesque (pictured left). His adherence to scale and lifelike depictions was grounded in his profound connection with the natural world which was inseparable from his work.
The set was acquired by William Henry Cavendish Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the fourth Duke of Portland (1768-1854), at some point after 1838, and has been maintained in excellent condition, with fresh, vibrant colors. Bibliographers calculate that the entire first edition numbered just 200 completed copies produced over an eleven-year period, of which 161 copies were created for paid subscribers. At present, only 120 complete sets are known to exist in the world, 107 in institutions and 13 in private hands.
Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. purchased this volume at Christie’s New York in 2012. He has spent a lifetime preserving nature founding the Knobloch Family Foundation to continue that mission. When building his collection, Carl turned for advice to Gudmund Vigtel who for many years was the distinguished Director of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. It is fitting that this remarkable book is now being sold to benefit conservation of the natural environment – a precious resource so dear to both Audubon and Carl.