by Robert King)
(Photo: Frank Espich)
See this and other photos from the book here.
The auction scene was, in the words on a keenly interested observer, what you might expect: A group of 12 or 15 people seated in a room with the auction items on display. The bidding started low — nervously low for the seller — and then pushed up, up, upward with each new bid until it became clear this was going to be a rewarding exercise.
That was the scene Tuesday in New York at Sotheby's auction house when the Indiana Historical Society put two rare sets of original watercolor drawings by John James Audubon up for bids. The result was quite a windfall: $3.77 million for two items the society originally purchased for $4,900.
"It's a great day," said John A. Herbst, President and CEO of the Indiana Historical Society, who witnessed the auction and described the drama.
The auction took less than 30 minutes to dispense with a pair of items that had been in the society's care for 81 years in the case of The Birds of North America and 63 years in the case of Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.
Herbst came away pleased that the sale prices exceeded the $3.2 million original Sotheby's estimates. The auction of The Birds of North America was particularly dramatic, Herbst said, as the bidding started below $2 million and climbed to $3.525 million.
"I wanted us to get near our price," Herbst said. "At a certain point you feel a little more relaxed because you've hit that number."
These items weren't your average wall prints or greeting cards purchased from a gift store.
The Birds of North America put up for sale Tuesday was a set of 435 broadsheet drawings bound together in a 4-volume set where each volume was roughly 39-inches-by-25 inches in size. The Audubon drawings of eagles, owls, Great Blue Herons and other birds were colored by hand and initially sold by subscription.
Sotheby's researchers estimated there to be less than 200 sets in existence and they described this one as "a very good set, somewhat heedlessly handled prior to acquisition by the IHS." They found that the original owner was a library in York, England but that it was eventually purchased, sometime before 1895, by Indiana mining millionaire and geologist William Borden, who established a school, a library and a museum in the southern Indiana town named after him.
The historical society bought The Birds of North America in 1933 for $4,000.
The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America was a 3-volume collection of 150 lithographed images of squirrels and raccoons, otters and buffalo and other 4-legged creatures. Sotheby's described it as "a bright and brilliantly colored set," while granting that some of the images had "finger soiling, light foxing, spotting and browning" with even a few tears in the margins.
The historical society bought the piece in 1951 for $900 at the Kennedy Galleries, an art dealership in New York.
The new owners of the items weren't identified by Sotheby's, but Herbst said the buyers of The Birds of North America are a husband and wife with the means to do the restoration needed for the item. The $3.525 million winning bid for The Birds was a new record for an online purchase in a live Sotheby's auction, according to Amy Lamb, a spokeswoman for the historical society. It was also the biggest return the historical society has ever received for an item it put up for sale.
After fees, the historical society will net $3.2 million. The money, Herbst said, will be used to buy more "Indiana-specific" collections and add space for their storage at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick History Center in Indianapolis.