At the Academy, a real page-turner

On Tuesday, one of the rarest, most expensive books in the world will be auctioned at Sotheby’s in London. An original copy of John James Audubon’s “Birds Of America” could fetch as much as $10 million.

There are only about 130 known copies in existence, and one of them is in the library of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Every Friday afternoon the Academy conducts a bibliophile ritual: the hydraulic glass casing is lifted off the gigantic book, white gloves are donned, and a single page of Audubon’s magnum opus is reverently turned.

At one page a week, it takes 8-1/2 years to go through the entire book.

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Curator Bob Peck says at that pace, every page-reveal feels like the first time. Because Audobon originally released his illustrations to subscribers in serial form over several years, he mixed up the arrangement to make them more exciting.

“Interestingly, not every edition is bound in the same order,” said Peck “There are a couple of sets where the owners couldn’t stand the disorder of the arrangement – so they went back and put them in order taxonomically – so that all the sparrows are together, all the hawks, all the owls, waterfowl and so on. So it was more like a modern day field guide.”

The Academy bought its copy directly from Audobon in 1832 to be used as a reference book, and had the pages backed with linen to protect them from tearing. Peck says other copies weren’t so lucky.

“One famous case in England where one of the subscribers took the plates, cut them all up, and glued them to her wallpaper to make a more interesting scene. She had fancy hand-painted Chinese wallpaper, mostly of trees, and thought, wouldn’t it be nice if there were some birds in these trees. Oh, I know, I have some of those birds prints kicking around. What if we just cut those out and stuck them up. They are still there today.”

The Academy page-turning happens every Friday at 3 p.m.  You have to be a member or pay the daily admission to see it.


This is not the copy going to the auction block on Tuesday – that one is owned by British royalty.

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