One of the few privately owned copies of John James Audubon's richly illustrated "Birds of America" sold for 7.3 million pounds ($11.5 million) in London Tuesday, smashing the auction record for a printed book. The work was part of Sotheby's sale of manuscripts, books and drawings from the collection of Lord Hesketh, who died in 1955. The auction fetched around 15.0 million pounds overall, according to the auctioneer's website, comfortably above pre-sale expectations of 8-10 million pounds.
As expected, the star lot was Audubon's monumental four-volume work, one of only 11 copies held in private hands. It had been estimated to sell for 4-6 million pounds. The book was bought by London dealer Michael Tollemache, who was bidding in the room and described the work after the sale as "priceless." Overall, 119 copies of "Birds of America" are known to exist. The book contains 1,000 illustrations of about 500 breeds of birds and took Audubon 12 years to complete. Audubon, who died in 1851, was an influential natural historian. He was quoted three times in Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species." A copy of the same work containing hand-colored, life-sized prints of birds was sold in 2000 for a then record price for a printed book at auction of $8.8 million. Other highlights from the sale included a cache of letters, including one from Queen Elizabeth I criticizing the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots, which went under the hammer for 349,250 pounds, above its estimate of 150-200,000 pounds. The papers, unknown to historians and biographers, include four letters signed by Elizabeth and others penned by leading political figures and addressed to Sir Ralph Sadler, who was entrusted with the custody of Mary in 1584 and 1585. "Although the phrase is overused, they are genuinely unique," Sotheby's specialist David Goldthorpe said at a press preview ahead of the auction. The sale also included a book widely regarded as the most important in all English literature -- the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays, "First Folio," dated 1623. The First Folio, with 36 plays including "Macbeth," "The Tempest," and "Twelfth Night," sold for 1.5 million pounds, at the top end of estimates. It is one of only 21 privately owned copies, and in unusually good condition.