In the Press
Open to view: The birds of paradise in city book worth £7m
The Mitchell Library in Glasgow is home to one of the rarest books in the world... and the public is being offered the chance to view it. VICTORIA WELDON reports
- The Herald
- 27 Nov 2018
It is one of the world’s rarest and most expensive books and has been kept under lock and key at a Scottish library for more than a century.
The Birds Of America by John James Audubon features stunning life-size, hand coloured depictions of more than 1,000 North American birds.
Only 120 copies of the book were ever made and other editions have sold for more than £7 million at auction.
The precious book is being held in a special vault at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, but members of the public are allowed to view it on request – providing they are supervised and have proof of identity.
Library collections manager Trish Grant said: “This is one of the greatest works of ornithology, done in huge detail.
“The pages measure 39 inches by 27 inches, with 455 hand-coloured plates – they were done in detail in the absence of photography.
“You can see every feather, every shade of colour, every pattern on the birds’ legs. “It is spectacular.
“It looks as fresh as when it was new.” Running to four volumes, The Birds Of America was created by Audubon over a period of more than 20 years.
He travelled the American wilderness drawing the birds he loved and was insistent that the book was made up of life-size illustrations of all the known species of birds in North America.
The original drawings for the work were drawn from life or soon after death, depicting birds in their natural habitat.
In 1826 Audubon sailed to England with his partly finished collection and found overnight success.
He found a printer for the Birds Of America, first in Edinburgh, then London, and later collaborated with the Scottish ornithologist William Macgillivray on the Ornithological Biographies – life histories of each of the species in the work.
Auction house Christie’s previously described the finished volume as “the greatest of all bird books, [and] arguably the highest achievement of ornithological art”.
The Mitchell edition of the book was bequeathed to the library in 1902 by book collector and textile millionaire Robert Jeffrey, who had been given it as a birthday gift from his wife Margaret.
Mrs Jeffrey is believed to have paid £300 for the publication.
The book was part of a collection of precious books donated by Mr Jeffrey, which also included a Kilmarnock Edition of Robert Burns poetry.
Ms Grant explained that anyone wishing to see the book must make a request to the library in advance, adding that the publication “is not something that we would bring out everyday”.
She said: “We have a duty of care to protect the legacy for the public, but we do want to make the collections accessible.”
While well known among ornithologists and book collectors, the book also found fame on the big screen earlier this year in British-American crime drama American Animals.
The film tells the true-life story of four college students who tried to steal a copy of The Birds Of America, along with a number of other precious books, from a Kentucky library in 2004.
On the day of the robbery, the hapless thieves dropped and had to leave behind two of the biggest prizes from the heist – two enormous copies of The Birds Of America.
The students were later arrested and each served seven years in prison for the theft.
The Birds Of America has long been sought after by bibliophiles and eight years ago a complete copy of the rare first edition was sold in London at Sotheby’s for £7,321,250.
The Economist magazine estimated that five of the 10 highest prices ever paid for printed books were for copies of The Birds Of America.
The other expensive books on the list include the Bay Psalm Book, which sold at auction at Sotheby’s in New York for $14,165,000 (£11 million).
The book was produced by the Congregationalist Puritans who emigrated to Massachusetts Bay in search of religious freedom and was one of 11 surviving copies.
The first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, printed in 1623, known simply as “The First Folio”, is also estimated to be worth around £4-5m.
Meanwhile, a single leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, printed by Johann Gutenberg in Mainz circa1455, sells for £50,000.
A complete version of the book, the first ever printed from moveable types in the western world, would be worth tens of millions of pounds.
The Mitchell Library is one of Europe’s largest public libraries and is home to a collection of 1.84 million items.
Its special collections contain medieval manuscripts, including the Book Of Hours, and Incunabula (early books printed before 1500).
The public can also view books and manuscripts from the 17th and 18th century, as well as private press books, watercolours by William “Crimea” Simpson and collections of Scottish poetry.
We have a duty of care to protect the legacy for the public