guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 7 December 2010 21.56 GMT
John James Audubon's Birds of America at Sotheby's in London before its sale for a world record £7.3m. Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
A copy of John James Audubon's Birds of America tonight became the most expensive book ever sold when it went under the hammer at Sotheby's for £7.3m. The auction was a rare chance to own one of the best preserved editions of the 19th century masterpiece, with its 435 hand-coloured illustrations, seen as a key volume on US natural history.
It was sold to an anonymous collector bidding by telephone, the auction house said. Each individual picture is so valuable there have been some fears the volume could be broken up and sold as 435 separate works of art. Experts believe that unlikely: the tome is probably more valuable intact.
And collectors hold Audobon in such reverence that the notion of ripping apart a perfect copy would be akin to sacrilege.
"Audubon's Birds holds a special place in the rare book market for several reasons," said Heather O'Donnell, a specialist with Bauman Rare Books in New York. "The book is a major original contribution to the study of natural history in the New World.
"It's also one of the most visually stunning books in the history of print: The scale of the images, the originality of each composition, the brilliance of the hand coloring."
The Birds of America plates were printed in black and white and hand-coloured afterwards, and made from engravings of Audubon's watercolours. The book measures more than 3 ft by 2 ft (90 cm by 60cm) because he wanted to paint the birds life size.