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Plate 251 from Audubon’s monumental Birds of America, the ‘Brown Pelican’ – a complete copy of this monumental work has sold at Christie’s New York for $8.3m (£6.24m).

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Illustrated with 435 coloured plates, this copy of the great double-elephant folio, originally issued in 87 fascicles of five sheets each, was entered for sale by the Knobloch Family Foundation, to fund its continuing work in the preservation of plants, animals and natural habitats via the protection and conservation of land and ecosystems.

More than a thousand birds feature on the magnificent coloured plates that fill the pages of this enormous work, all of them depicted life-size, even if the some of the taller birds – cranes, flamingos and the like – have to do some bending to be accommodated.

This set, bound as four volumes in contemporary English crimson morocco gilt by John Mackenzie, and described by Christie’s as in exceptional condition, is one of an estimated 200 completed sets produced over a period of 11 years, from 1827-38.

Of that number, 120 are now thought to survive unbroken – but only 13 of those sets are identified as remaining in private hands.

This set was acquired by the 4th Duke of Portland* at some point after 1838 and remained in the family until 2012, when it came to auction in the same rooms and was acquired by Carl W Knobloch Jr at $7m.

Audubon highest sums

In 2000, again at Christie’s New York, an Audubon set that had been presumed ‘lost’ for much of the century came to auction.

Originally acquired by George Lane-Fox of Wetherby in Yorkshire, whose family sold it for £380 at Sotheby’s in 1909, this set seemed to have disappeared until it turned up in the 7th Marquis of Bute’s library at Mount Stuart House at Rothesay.

It subsequently emerged that the set had been bought in 1909 by Quaritch, whose records showed that it had been sold on to the 4th Lord Bute for £585 in 1911.

That rediscovered set sold at $8m (only £5m at the time), but in 2010, in London, Christie’s sold the set from the 2nd Lord Hesketh’s library at £7.32m (then $11.54m).

In the recent Christie’s New York sale $280,000 (£198,580) was also bid for a copy of Audubon’s Viviparous Quadrupeds of America. 

* The 5th Duke of Portland (1800-79) was a notable eccentric who preferred his own company to that of others. He excavated an extensive network of tunnels and rooms beneath the grounds of his estate, among them an underground library and ballroom.