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A magnificent set of Audubon’s Birds of America is expected to make many millions of dollars when it comes up for sale in New York in June, and two near-complete sets of John Gould’s beautiful folios feature in two London sales.

One of the latter is a handsome, uniformly bound set, offered as a single lot. The other will present the various works separately, as part of the dispersal of a fine Dutch library.

That library contains large numbers of other works, including lots carrying five-figure estimates, but also a much wider range of items across an equally broad price range.

And there are yet more fine bird books to come in Scotland in June.

Audubon opportunity

Following its exhibition in Los Angeles at the end of April and a five-day showing in London from May 19-24, an exceptional copy of the ornithological masterwork that is Audubon’s Birds of America returns to Christie’s New York for sale on June 14.

Known as the ‘Duke of Portland’ set after a former owner, and on sale to benefit the Knobloch Family Foundation, it is reckoned to be one of the finer copies of the most famous natural history colour plate work ever produced still in private hands.

A double-elephant folio, originally issued in 87 fascicles in 1827-38 and later bound as four volumes that each stand over 3ft (91cm) high, it contains a total of 435 hand-coloured engraved and aquatinted plates in which all the birds are depicted actual size – even if they have to be shown with wings folded, necks bent down, etc.

Originally acquired by the 4th Duke of Portland, this set was part of an edition that ran perhaps to just 200 copies, of which 161 were destined for paid-up subscribers. Of that number, some 120 complete sets are recorded, but all bar 13 of them are now housed in institutional collections.

Carrying a potentially record-breaking estimate of $8m-12m (currently around £6m-8.5m), the set to be sold in June was purchased in the same rooms in 2012 at $7m (then £4.52m) by the late Carl W Knobloch (1930-2016), a man who spent a lifetime involved in conservation of the natural world, and the proceeds of the sale will enable his foundation to continue that work.

Gould set

Coming up at Sotheby’s on May 19 is a splendid set of 11 of the great folio ornithological and zoological works of Gould – comprising 43 volumes in all and sumptuously bound in near-uniform green morocco gilt by Zaehnsdorf.

Born in Lyme Regis, the son of a gardener, Gould (1804-81) trained as a taxidermist rather than as an artist and in 1828 was appointed ‘animal preserver’ to the Zoological Society’s London museum. It was there that the arrival of a collection of birds, formed principally in the Himalayas, prompted him to compile his first folio collection, A Century of Birds from the Himalayas of 1831-32.

This and the other great works that followed over six decades contain a total of more than 3100 hand-coloured litho plates, but Gould did not himself execute finished drawings.

Instead, he provided rough pencil or watercolour sketches with notes from which the talented artists he engaged would work.

Gould’s wife, Elizabeth, was among those who produced the wonderful illustrations, along with Edward Lear, Joseph Wolf, Henry Richter, Joseph Hart and others.

This set of Gould’s works was last seen at auction at Christie’s in 1997, when it made £460,000. This time the estimate is £700,000-900,000.

The record for a set of Gould’s works currently stands at £1.1m, the sum paid for the set in the Foljambe Library at Christie’s in 2008.

Dutch library at Bonhams


Macrocercus Ararauna, or the blue and yellow Macaw, one of the 42 coloured litho plates that illustrate the copy of Edward Lear’s …Family of Psittacidae coming up for sale at Bonhams in London, estimated at £40,000-60,000.

Comprising some 2400 volumes in all, a Dutch library formed mainly in the 1950s and ’60s to complement the work of the Wassenaar Zoo in Holland (which closed in 1985) is to be sold by Bonhams on May 30.

The library, which has remained intact for the past 30 years and looks suitably impressive on the Knightsbridge catalogue’s endpapers, contains both zoological and ornithological works. Bird books, however, form very much the larger part of the 234-lot sale and will provide most of the more expensive lots.

Like the Sotheby’s sale, the Wassenaar Zoo auction contains a comprehensive collection of Goulds (to be sold separately, as mentioned earlier), but illustrated above is a plate from a copy of Edward Lear’s Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots of 1830-32.

The first illustrated study of a single family of birds, it was also the earliest of the great English avian folios to be illustrated with coloured litho plates.

In Lear’s exquisitely detailed and scientifically accurate plates, much of the background was often left uncoloured, as in the plate shown here.

Ornithology in Edinburgh

Yet another fine selection of ornithological books will form part of a June 20 sale at Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh. Among them is a five-volume set of Coenraad Temminck and Baron ML de Chartrouse’s Nouveau Recueil de Planché Coloriées d’Oiseaux, pour servir de suite et de complément au planches enluminés de Buffon… of 1820-39, which is valued at £10,000-15,000.