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Rare birds for sale. Audubon's exquisite renderings will go to the highest bidders, as a unique collection of `Birds of America' prints is auctioned this fall

JOHN JAMES AUDUBON, frustrated with poor business in his Henderson, Ky., general store, set off in 1810 to explore the frontier of the new United States. Traveling up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, he spent much of his time making sketches of the hundreds of kinds of birds he encountered. Twenty years later, Audubon sold copies of the drawings under the title ``Birds of America.'' In its day, the four-volume set was considered a basic text in ornithology. Today, while much of the scientific information is outdated, the intricately beautiful drawings remain highly prized as works of art. In September, a rare, near-perfect set of ``Birds of America'' will be auctioned by Christie's in New York, at a price of about $1.5 million.

While exposure to ultraviolet light, frequent handling, and muddled attempts to touch up the prints have left many of the 139 remaining copies in poor condition, the set to be auctioned has been left untouched in a vault at the Buffalo Museum of Science. As a result, experts say, this copy is one of the best-preserved examples of Audubon's work. Jennifer Josselson, vice-president in charge of the print department at Christie's, describes the volume as ``remarkable, with colors that are particularly fine and fresh, and only one significant tear in the entire set.''

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Experts have expressed concern over the breakup of the set to be auctioned. William H. Loos, curator of rare books at the Buffalo Public Library, worries that individual prints may suffer damage in the hands of amateur art collectors. But Ms. Josselson of Christie's is not concerned, citing new, improved framing techniques.

At age 15, living in France, Audubon started his first collection of sketches of native birds. Over the next 20 years, he made his drawings as a hobby while attempting several business ventures, including operating a lead mine in Pennsylvania. While traveling, he supported himself by painting portraits and teaching drawing. Finally, in 1819, Audubon was jailed for debt after a series of business failures. Soon afterward, he developed the idea of publishing his drawings to raise money.

For the next 18 years, Audubon made ``Birds of America'' his primary goal. He couldn't find a publisher for the first volume in 1827, so he financed the venture himself. To save money, he published the accompanying texts separately, because British copyright laws required giving copies of all written works to each of the nine main public libraries. He found it difficult to attract subscribers, especially in the United States, where an interest in natural science had not yet developed as much as in Europe. But by 1838, more than 200 people and institutions each paid about $1,000 for the sets.

Although his reputation suffered in 1820, when some drawings of mythical birds he had made for fun were published seriously, and his scientific accuracy is known today to be less than meticulous, ``Birds of America'' attracted much attention and established Audubon as one of the foremost naturalists of his time.

The huge ``double elephant folio''-size prints, each measuring 37.5 by 25.5 inches, were stamped from copper plates and hand-colored to match the original drawings. In all, from 1827 to 1838, Audubon printed 435 birds, which were later bound in four volumes to make a complete set. Each subscriber received by mail five prints at a time. A set of five usually contained one large bird, two medium size, and two small. The wild turkey shown above is part of the first set of prints sent out by Audubon.

Since not all subscribers continued the series for the full 11 years, there are few remaining sets that contain even most of the prints. In 1973, Waldemar Fries documented 139 sets still nearly complete. The volume to be auctioned in September is missing only the great white heron plate.

The first three volumes of the Buffalo Science Museum's set were purchased in 1837 for about $660. In 1910, the full set of prints was valued at $1,500. In September, Christie's plans to auction the work plate by plate, with an individual print selling for between $700 and $30,000, depending on the condition and rarity of the print. Seven ``Birds of America'' sets have been auctioned over the last decade; the highest total price was nearly $1.8 million in 1983. The most recent sale took place two years ago, when a copy owned by the City of New York with six plates missing fetched almost the same amount.

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The Buffalo area is home to another copy of the prints, as well. The Buffalo and Erie County Public Library has one of the only copies on display to the public. The library turns one page of the complete set every Monday, and has done so ever since 1931.

Several dedicated art lovers have spent the eight years necessary to see the prints - all 435 of them.

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