Rare Book Sells for £7m

£7,321,250, to be precise:

Sotheby’s said the price of £7,321,250, including buyer’s premium, paid for John James Audubon’s Birds Of America was a record for any printed book at auction.

The illustrated book by the renowned ornithologist, naturalist and painter (1785-1851), a landmark of natural history, was expected to fetch between £4 million and £6 million.

I’ve always wondered at what point a piece of literature transcends itself and becomes an object and then an artefact of such value.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

12 replies on “Rare Book Sells for £7m”

I think I will always measure a books value by the pleasure I get from reading it. I’m not inclined to keep limited or signed books pristine and buy an extra copy for actually reading. All paper copies will rot evenutally, better they wear out from being read and loved than simply from age.

CLEARLY you need to re-read my blog post on collecting M.C. Newton’s “The Reef”, as it pinpoints the exact factors involved in a book’s transformation into a collectible.


I have actually seen an original edition of John James Audubon’s Birds Of America in the Rare Books room at the Natural History Museum and it is awesome in the truest sense of the word.
The book itself is huge (larger than A1 paper) and every page is an actual painting. Audubon drew each page as a line drawing first then handpainted every detail meticulously. When people pay upwards of £34 million for a single Van Gogh, this beautiful and amazing book went cheap!

I’ve become a bit of a collector myself in recent years, going from not caring what I buy but sometimes getting hardbacks because they’re the first out to seeking hardbacks exclusively, getting them signed, and now picking up first editions – especially out of print ones – in as good nick as I can.

While my pockets aren’t deep enough to get all the ones I’d like (first editions of Chambers’ ‘The King in Yellow’ and Clark Ashton Smith’s ‘Out of Space & Time’ on sale for way over a grand for instance) or indeed the one in this post(!) and in fact most of mine aren’t worth all that much in the grand scheme of things, I really do treasure the ones I have.

I suppose with the out-of-print in particular there’s a relatively petty thrill of exclusivity. “I have this. I know about this. As time goes by and less and less people will have this or know about it, and I still will” There’s at least one that I almost feel I’m protecting for posterity.

Otherwise though, it is a genuine love of the stories themselves, which becomes a strange sort of fetishising of the mere vessels that contain them – the story being the soul in a sense, the book only the body.

I just got UK 1st ed HCs of Moorcock’s ‘Dancers at the End of Time’ series and I’m absolutely delighted with them, thinking of them as SFF historical artefacts almost. I’ll probably never read them but am rereading a battered paperback I’ve had for almost a decade instead. The fact that this is basically kinda weird has only just struck me recently. It certainly resonates with Adele’s ideas about books as well-used, well-enjoyed things rather than lifeless museum pieces…

(sorry for the now-customary essay!)

Joe: I’ve got a copy signed by the Polish Joe Abercrombie – cheap at half the price.

Thanks for sharing, Alex. What about collectors’ editions – the kind of limited run, slipcase jobby? Or does that not possess the same kind of magical values?

Mark, as far as I know it is stored in a special protective archive, but occasionally there are tours of the Rare Books room but they sell out very fast! I visited it as part of my induction course when I started working there 🙂

Mark: To be honest, not really! They always seem rather gimmicky, with cover prices sometimes double or triple the average. It almost seems an exploitation of the collector, a contrived sense of collectability, creating a commodity whose value is determined by the producers (“I say this is collectable”) rather than by the passage of time, scarcity (not determined by a purposefully limited print run) and by collectors themselves – “we say this is collectable”. “Can’t fake the funk” as they say!

A first edition has a real sense of history about it which I love and while new editions – especially new hardcover editions or bringing books back into print – serve a very valid purpose, I can’t get as excited about them.

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