“Birds of America” is once more on display as part of an exhibition at Philly museum. The book, one of the rarest in history, is available for public view as part of a daily routine that takes place at the oldest natural history museum in the country.
The ritual exposes for the public on each of the weekdays the bird of the day. At precisely 3:15 pm a staff member of the Academy of Natural Sciences wearing white gloves unlocks the protection cover of the old book and turns the page. The book signed John James Audubon dates from the 19th century and its pages are linen backed. 180 years after the naturalist created the illustrations of his ornithology book the details are still remarkably accurate and the watercolors still vivid.
The curator of the museum, Robert Peck, said that usually this type of work fades with the years passing due to exposure to the light. Their copy of “Birds of America” though was kept safe from the direct sun light and as such is in perfect condition to the day.
Back when the book was still in the making, the Academy of Natural Sciences was one of the first subscribers of “The Birds of America” from 1827 to 1838. They would receive a new page from time to time according to the naturalist schedule. The complete collection includes 435 hand colored copper engravings done on handmade paper, 2 by 3 feet. Each page cost about $1,000, meaning $40,000 today.
Every month the subscribers would receive about five new prints of the book which usually included a large print of a bird like the hot pink Roseate Spoonbill and four prints of smaller birds. Audubon created 87 sets of five. The museum has his collection bound in five volumes.
The most recent purchase of one of Audubon complete copies of “Birds of America” took place in London last year. The book sold in an auction for $11.5 million, a huge price for a single book.
Peck talks very fondly of the memory of the naturalist. “He was so great at these paintings and he was such a wonderful character”, he said. Audubon was a great storyteller who spiced up his discoveries with anecdotes surrounding his experiences of finding the birds in the wild. He started putting together his book previous to some of the birds depicted in it being even discovered.