Birds in the News

Extremely Rare Elephant Egg Doesn't Sell

Sotheby’s auction in London sought bids in the tens of thousands of dollars for its remarkably large oddity.

Update, May 6, 2015 — The intact elephant egg—a rare commodity laid by a bird extinct since at least the 17th century (and possibly as early as the 13th)—did not sell when put up for auction last week, a representative from Sotheby’s informs us. Perhaps the $76,210 price tag was too much after all.

Sotheby’s spokeswoman Melica Khansari confirmed to Audubon the intact elephant bird egg “did not find a buyer.” She declined to name the egg’s reserve price (the lowest bid the buyer would accept), citing a confidentiality policy.  

A reconstructed egg, which also went up for sale, albeit to much less fanfare, did sell last week. Both eggs were purchased in the capital Madagascar in 1919 by a Swiss collector, and had remained in the same family since. Khansari says that egg fetched £2,125, or about $3,240. (It was appraised at $3,048 to $4,573 before the auction.)

What will become of the other? Only one person knows for sure. “What happens to the egg now is the decision of the consignor (who still owns the egg),” Khansari says.

Here's what we had to say when the egg was about to go on sale:

April 30, 2015 — Are you searching for the perfect birthday gift? Turn off QVC, put down that copy of SkyMall, and break out your checkbook, because we’ve found it. Today, April 30, Sotheby’s in London will auction off an intact and complete” elephant bird’s egg—and it can be yours for somewhere between the low, low price of $45,726 and the slightly higher, but still-pretty-reasonable-when-you think-about-it price of $76,210. That’s the auction house’s estimate for what it is calling the largest egg ever known, from the largest bird that ever lived. 

If the amount that the intact egg is expected to fetch at auction falls outside of your price range, don’t worry, there’s a low-end alternative: a second elephant egg—“shattered and professionally reconstructed”—that Sotheby’s appraises at a mere $3,048 to $4,573. “A few small surface chips, very light surface marking, but generally in very good condition,” the catalog cheerfully reports. 

Elephant birds, presumably driven extinct by hunting and habitat loss, were once native to Madagascar. They grew to about 10 feet tall, and weighed 1,000 pounds. According to Sotheby’s, their eggs, which were two hundred times larger than a chicken’s, became “sought-after rarities and curiosities during the late nineteenth century” in Europe. (In Madagascar, the same eggs were eaten and their shells were used to carry water, and in some cases, rum.)

It’s not known exactly when the bird disappeared—estimates range from as early as the 13th century to as late at the 17th—but it was likely still around in 1298 when the explorer Marco Polo wrote about them in his journal. He described a bird that looked like an eagle, but “incomparably greater in size; being so large and strong as to seize an elephant with its talons, and to lift it into the air, in order to drop it to the ground and in this way kill it." Polo's account was not firsthand (and was undoubtedly exaggerated—elephant birds could not fly) but he is credited with giving the bird its name.

The provenance of both eggs is established by an invoice dated June 1919. That’s when the successful Swiss carriage-maker and businessman Otto Alfred Heimburger purchased them and five others in Madagascar’s capital city, Antananarivo. Back then, the going price for seven of eggs (or at least the price Heimburger paid) was 500 Swiss francs ($531)—so just think how much these eggs might be worth in another hundred years.


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