The Birds of America, the 19th-century masterpiece by John James Audubon, is the world's most valuable book and it is extremely rare. The 1m-tall book revolutionised natural history art, portraying birds full of drama and life in their natural habitat.
Brown thrashers by John James Audubon. Plate 116 from The Birds of America.
The Birds of America features 435 beautiful hand-coloured plates that show birds life-size, in natural positions and in their native habitats.
Unlike the lifeless stuffed birds depicted by his contemporaries, Audubon illustrated the drama of birds’ lives. His paintings resurrected the brown thrashers fighting for survival against a predatory snake and the osprey swooping in for the kill that he witnessed in the wild.
The book is the result of Audubon's lifelong fascination with birds. He began watching them at an early age, and became a brilliant amateur field naturalist. His ambition was to illustrate every bird in the United States and its territories, and he dedicated his life to this work.
Rarely a day passed when Audubon wasn't watching birds and it became a distracting obsession. With no head for figures, his import business failed and he was sent to debtors’ prison. When free, he resolved to put everything into his ‘great work’.
Despite completing hundreds of paintings, Audubon's idea for a book was turned down by American publishers who thought he lacked the academic credentials buyers looked for in an author.
Portrait of John James Audubon by John Syme, 1826. © Photo researchers / Science Photo Library
Not deterred, Audubon took his work to Britain, arriving in Liverpool in July 1826. To the British, he looked like the classic exotic American frontier woodsman. He epitomised the untamed natural world as seen in Romantic art and literature popular in Europe in the early 1800s.
Audubon finally published the book himself in London between 1827 and 1838. Demanding precision and quality, he personally supervised the engraving and printing by Robert Havell and Son.
Audubon published The Birds of America in batches of 5 pages. He sold them for 2 guineas (equivalent to about £100 today) to wealthy individuals and institutions. Subscribers could collect full or partial sets, or buy all 4 volumes of the book for £182 (equivalent to £9,000 today).
It is thought that less than 200 complete sets were produced and only 120 are known to survive. The Museum looks after 2 editions, including a bound copy that belonged to Lord Rothschild, who founded the Natural History Museum at Tring.
The Birds of America is one of the best known and most valuable natural history books ever published. In December 2010, a complete bound first edition sold at auction for £7.3 million, which is a world record for a book.