What you see: An 1834 first edition of Oiseaux brillans du Brésil by Jean Théodore Descourtilz. Heritage Auctions estimates it around $20,000. Featured above is the Red Curlew plate from the book.
The expert: James Gannon, director of rare books for Heritage Auctions.
I see the quote in the lot notes from Rubens Borba de Moraes, the former director of the United Nations library in New York, saying, “This book is so rare that I had begun to doubt its existence,” but how many copies are there? Do we know? From what we can tell, we think this is the fifth known copy.
Can you talk about how the ornithological book came to be? Was Descourtilz the illustrator? He did illustrate it. It was toward the end of the color plate period, which ran from 1790 to 1830. It was fairly early for a hand-colored ornithological [bird] book. Audubon was contemporaneous in the 1830s. This book was never published. It was issued, and someone made lithographs that were then hand-colored, but it was never published, and never had a table of contents or text. The lithographic plates were put together in a book. I don’t know much about Descourtilz. I’d never heard of him before the book crossed my path. His dad was a botanist and a physician who did a book on the flora of the Antilles. Descourtilz did the illustrations for his father’s book. It’s better known because it was published.
The ornithological book is described as a first edition, but it was not published. Why might it have been made? It was probably a mockup, made to engender interest from publishers and get the money to be able to produce the book.
Was it intended to be sold by subscription, as Audubon’s Birds of America was? Maybe the  plates were issued in five groups of 12. That was the style then. Audubon published in parts. The reason they did it was so they could start reaping profits against their costs sooner.
The lot notes say the ornithological book has 60 plates. Does that mean it’s complete? I don’t know, but there’s no reason to think there were more. We call it complete. Other copies might have a similar number or a lesser number. Whether he envisioned an epic work like Audubon, we don’t know.
Are all the plates in the ornithological book as vibrant as the Red Curlew plate, shown above? Pretty much. I think it’s just a matter of [the book] being closed. We don’t know much about where it came from beyond being in the same family for decades. It probably was not handled very much over the almost 200 years since it was made.
The lot notes say the ornithological book’s illustrations are “heightened with gum arabic.” How did that detailing enhance the plates? Gum arabic is a clear sheen, almost a clear varnish. Lots of color plate books use it. You’d put it over the color in certain places so it created a sheen when you looked at it. It makes the plates look more vibrant, and it catches the light in different places. It would help make the plates stand out. [The effect is not visible in the photo shown.]
The book is French, but it has no text. Does that make it more appealing to American collectors, or does it not matter? It doesn’t matter in this case, because it wasn’t issued with text. The collector for this is someone who collects bird books or hand-colored plate books. Anyone sophisticated enough to spend tens of thousands on a book understands why it has no text.
And we don’t know why it wasn’t published? Descourtilz may never have found the backing. Maybe there were other reasons why it was never published. It was certainly publishable if the right circumstances existed. If there was a similar kind of thing for Audubon [Birds of America], where Audubon made lithographs and had them hand-colored to get the backing, get the money [to make it]–if that existed, it’d really be worth a lot, because it predated the book.
How did this ornithological book come to you? It came through another person on staff. She told me the family had had it for a long time, decades. The consigner had a connection to one of the people listed in the front of the book, which is why I think it sat for 80 to 100 years on a shelf. It didn’t get looked at by book fairs and dealers. They [the family] probably didn’t think about it for a long time.
How did you arrive at a value for this book? It hasn’t come on the auction market. There are so few copies around. Probably, other collectors and dealers have never seen it. There may be more copies we don’t know about that have never become public. If it sold for mid-five figures, we’d be satisfied.
What was it like to look at it for the first time? I didn’t see it until it had been researched by [Heritage Auctions] staff. We knew it was special, and we knew we wanted to use it in the advertising campaign [for the auction].
What is it like to leaf through it, and how does that experience compare to handling Audubon’s Birds of America? I’ve seen Audubon many times. Here, everything is a surprise, everything is new. Many of the plates are stunningly beautiful.
Why will it stick in your memory? How rare it is to see this book. There aren’t many around. Many more people have seen our catalog cover with the Red Curlew on it than have actually seen the book.
Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
James Gannon has appeared three other times on The Hot Bid, speaking about the typewriters Larry McMurtry used to write Lonesome Dove; a British first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that ultimately sold for a world auction record; and an inscribed presentation copy of Jack Keroauc’s On the Road.
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