John James Audubon was one of the most distinctive characters in early American history. His work as an ornithologist, naturalist and painter helped to shape scientific understanding in the 19th century, and his paintings have become some of the most prized works of early Americana.
Now, the Indiana Historical Society (IHS) is planning to sell two of Audubon's most famous works – "The Birds of America" and "Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America" – at a fine art auction that could net the group upwards of $3 million.
Audubon's works at auction
"The Birds of America" contains 435 beautifully rendered paintings by Audubon. Before coming into the IHS's possession, the book was used by a private school in Southern Indiana, where students simply used it as a nature textbook, not having any idea that it would someday be worth millions.
As for "Viviparous Quadrupeds," the collection of paintings of four-legged creatures of the American frontier, while not as sought after as its counterpart in the auction, is still expected to be sold for at least $300,000.
Many of Audubon's works have become hot items in the art auction world over the past several years. Two different first editions of "The Birds of America" were sold for $11.5 million and nearly $8 million, respectively, in recent years, further cementing Audubon's place not only in American history but as a giant of the auction world as well.
Astounding return on investment
The IHS purchased "The Birds of America" in 1933 for $4,000, and picked up "Viviparous Quadrupeds" nearly 20 years later for just $900. Now, those two works are expected to fetch approximately $3.3 million at auction in April 2014. The IHS plans to redistribute those profits to fund its core mission of preserving the history of the Hoosier State.
Why auctions are great options for nonprofits and other groups
The upcoming sale also highlights how auctions are the preferred method for many nonprofits and other groups when it comes to selling important properties, primarily because of the transparency they provide.
"We're fortunate on these two items that these were not the gifts of individuals or families," IHS President and CEO John Herbst told the Associated Press. "Even though people give them to us unconditionally and sign paperwork to that effect, we're just happy not to have to deal with an emotional attachment to this that might come from donors who might have placed it with us."
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