Ruben Borba de Moraes made that comment a good many years ago in his great Bibliographica Brasiliania, and it is almost 30 years since a copy of the 1834, Paris first edition last found a place in auction records.
That was a copy that at Sotheby’s New York in 1989 made $110,000 as part of the great Bradley Martin library* – but in a Heritage Auctions (25/20/12.5% buyer’s premium) sale of September 13 another finally took flight at $80,000 (£61,070).
Bound without a title-page or text, as issued, but complete with 60 hand coloured litho plates and in a worn and broken binding of the period, this copy bore an ink stamp identifying it as having once been part of a French royal library, that of Louis-Philippe, duc d’Orléans. In the latter part of the 19th century it left France and passed into American hands.
Hummingbirds, toucans, tanagers, parakeets and other tropical birds are depicted in the plates. Some had imperfections, but the colouring on most, said the saleroom, remained striking. Several plates also have English names of the birds added in pencil.
Records also show that in 1997, at Sotheby’s in London, there emerged what appears to have been a copy of Descourtilz’s work with a slightly different title, Oiseaux remarquables du Brésil. Again lacking text and containing only 30 hand coloured plates, it made a huge, ten-times-estimate sum.
Bearing the Rio de Janeiro imprint of Heaton & Rensburg and dated by Sotheby’s at the time to c.1840-50, that copy sold for £270,000.
Though now lacking three of the larger format autotype carbon photographic prints with which it was originally issued, a first edition of John Thomson’s Foochow and the Min sold for $80,000 (£61,070) in the same Dallas auction.
An oblong folio album of 1873, it was described as being in a disintegrating and ‘unsalvageable’ publisher’s binding in which the text section showed serious water staining that extended onto several of the plates – but it was nonetheless a rarity.
Only 46 copies were produced for subscribers, mostly foreign residents of Foochow, to whom it was dedicated as a memento of their lives in “…one of the most picturesque provinces of China.”
A couple of better preserved copies have made much more: back in 2006 Sotheby’s sold a copy in New York for $150,000 and in 2012, in London, they saw bidding reach £290,000 on another.
* The Bradley Martin copy of Descourtilz’s work was boxed with a facsimile copy of the author’s manuscript text.