On June 14, one of the world’s most expensive books, John James Audubon’s double-elephant folio of The Birds of America, will go to auction in New York City. Considered the artist’s “greatest triumph,” the oversized four-volume set that contains 435 hand-colored prints of his watercolor drawings, published at great personal expense between 1827 and 1838, is the kind of rare book owned only by institutions and One Percenters.
The estimated $8-12 million that it will take to win the coveted book will not, however, line the pockets of a well-heeled collector. Instead, every dollar will be invested into environmental causes by the consignor, the Knobloch Family Foundation (KFF), a private, family-run organization that focuses on “place-based conservation,” primarily in Texas, Georgia, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Carl W. Knobloch, Jr., who purchased the book at auction in 2012 for just under $8 million, gifted it to the foundation managed by his wife, three daughters, and nephew before his passing in 2016.
“He had an unusual sense of aesthetics, and he liked collecting art . . . and he loved the natural world,” says Knobloch’s nephew, Steve Sharkey, one of the directors of the KFF. Knobloch had grown up on a farm in Connecticut and enjoyed hunting, fly fishing, and other outdoorsy pursuits. He was also an astute businessman. After graduating from Yale University in 1951, he pursued lucrative careers in finance, real estate, and energy. Knobloch was, according to his nephew, an inveterate investor, and he purchased The Birds of America “as an investment for the foundation,” which is now being realized.
There are only 13 copies of this edition left in private hands, and this one is not only beautiful but historically noteworthy. “The book has only effectively had one owner until Carl Knobloch,” says Sven Becker, head of books and manuscripts at Christie’s in New York, “and that was the dukes of Portland.” The 4th Duke bought the book in 1838 or 1839, soon after its publication; it remained shelved in the family’s Nottinghamshire estate until 2012. Since the book hadn’t been moved or handled much, “the quality of the coloring is absolutely spectacular,” Becker says. The binding is also quite lavish—full red Morocco leather with gilt borders, which, due to the sheer size of the volumes, would have cost the duke nearly as much as the actual printed sheets.
When it goes to auction this week, the book has the potential to reach a record price for Audubon’s Birds of America, now standing at about $11.5 million—all of which will go to the KFF.
Founded in 1997, the KFF is tight-lipped—they have no website and no staff. According to a two-page statement released by the foundation, its mission is “conservation of natural ecosystems,” and it has quite the budget to advance that mission: $150 million in assets that the directors intend to spend down over the next 10 to 15 years. The board meets three times a year to discuss opportunities and proposals, and their preference is for “data not deals,” according to the statement.
Over the past few years, the KFF’s philanthropic projects have included a donation of $2 million towards the purchase of the Powderhorn Ranch, a 17,351-acre piece of native coastal prairie in Texas that is expected to become a state park. Endangered Whooping Cranes winter nearby—possibly at Powderhorn Ranch in the future—and migrant birds stop to rest in its wetlands and woodlands after they cross the Gulf of Mexico. The foundation also funded the Wyoming Migration Initiative, which tracks the movements of ungulates (elk, mule deer, sheep, etc.), as well as Golden Eagles and sage grouse. In Georgia, the KFF is working with the state’s Department of Natural Resources and the Nature Conservancy to protect the at-risk gopher tortoise through a collaborative effort to buy up 100,000 acres of its habitat.
Even Audubon witnessed dwindling species and habitat loss as early as the 1820s, which makes it apropos that a copy of his masterpiece will be sold to benefit conservation. The Birds of America showcased, for the first time, life-size illustrations of birds (some of which are now extinct, like the Carolina Parakeet). But it was more than that, Becker of Christie’s says: “Audubon was striking out into untouched landscape and recording the birds and the habitats as well. That’s one thing people tend to forget, because the book is called The Birds of America, but actually it’s full of thousands of insect specimens and plant specimens.” Since three quarters of the population was living within 50 miles of the Atlantic coast at the time, he adds, Audubon was “revealing America to itself.”
Becker, who has personally handled six copies of Audubon’s Birds during his career, says it has been “incredibly rewarding” to work with this one considering the foundation’s plan for the proceeds of the forthcoming sale. Although auction houses routinely hold charity events, this might be the first time a rare book has been offered specifically for this purpose—one that would surely please John James Audubon himself.
So you don't have $12 million to spare? You can still enjoy John James Audubon's stunning paintings. Find and download all 435 of the Birds of America prints, in high resolution, at audubon.org/birds-of-america.