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Considered a masterpiece of ornithology art, the four-volume set contains more than 400 engraved hand-colored plates of all the North American species known to Audubon in the early 19th century.
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updated 1/20/2012 12:57:06 PM ET 2012-01-20T17:57:06

A rare first edition of John James Audubon's illustrated "The Birds of America" depicting more than 400 life-size North American species in four monumental volumes was purchased at auction Friday for $7.9 million.

Christie's auction house identified the buyer as an American collector who bid by phone.

The winning bid was within the presale estimate of $7 million to $10 million for the work, considered a masterpiece of ornithology art.

Another complete first edition of "The Birds of America" sold at Sotheby's in London in December 2010 for $11.5 million, a record for the most expensive printed book sold at auction.

Story: Rare ‘Birds of America’ book sells for $11.5M, breaks record

The 3 1/2-foot-tall books feature hand-colored prints of all the species known to Audubon in early 19th-century North America. Audubon insisted on the book's large format — printed on the largest handmade sheets available at the time — because of his desire to portray the birds in their actual size and natural habitat.

AP
The books, shown here with a smaller complete first edition set of Audubon’s 5-volume “Ornithological Biography,” stand 3 1/2-feet high because of Audubon’s desire to depict the birds in their actual size and natural habitat.

He found creative ways to paint them to fit the page, including showing large species feeding with their necks bent.

The set at Christie's was offered for sale by the heirs of the 4th Duke of Portland. It was accompanied by a complete first edition five-volume set of Audubon's "Ornithological Biography."

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Experts estimate that 200 complete first-edition copies were produced over an 11-year period, from 1827 to 1838. Today, 120 are known to exist, with 107 in institutions and 13 in private hands. The book, part scientific and part art, includes 435 hand-colored, life-size prints of 497 bird species, made from engraved copper plates based on Audubon's original watercolors.

Audubon sold the engraved plates in a subscription series in England, Europe and North America.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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