Providence Athenaeum Audubon Sells for $5 Million

Providence Athenaeum Audubon Sells for $5 Million

A double-elephant folio of John James Audubon’s Birds of America owned by the Providence (R.I.) Athenaeum brought a winning bid of $5 million from an anonymous buyer at Christie’s auction house in New York December 15. The set of 435 poster-sized color engravings was one of only 84 copies purchased from Audubon himself in advance of its publication in 1838, the Providence Journal reported December 16.

Although the sale price was at the low end of preauction estimates, Athenaeum Executive Director Alison Maxell was pleased with the outcome. “For years we’ve had to put off doing things because we didn’t have the money,” she told the Journal. “Now we have the means to move forward and make the Athenaeum the kind of vital institution we all want it to be.”

The Audubon was the centerpiece of a lawsuit against the 252-year-old private library in 2003 by a group of members and users who claimed the Athenaeum’s board, by putting the folio up for sale, was straying from its mission and bylaws as a conservatory of rare books and art. However, a Rhode Island Superior Court judge ruled in August 2004 that the board had acted appropriately.

Christie’s auctioneer admitted that the controversy surrounding the sale could have been responsible for the bids not reaching $7 million as anticipated. “There’s no way to know for sure, but it’s possible that some people were put off by the way this particular copy of Birds came to the market,” he said. The all-time record sale of $8.8 million for an Audubon was set at Christie’s in 2000.

Posted December 16, 2005.