A fine-art endeavour with a good return
The remarkable John Gould was a taxidermist by training (famous for having once preserved an entire giraffe) and an entrepreneur by nature.
Proof is that his lithographic prints are as much in demand today as they were when produced in the 19th century.
The fact that admirers of his art are happy to pay more than $10,000 for a single example is not surprising. They were expensive at the time. He used the best paper and the finest printing process and charged appropriately.
In the case of his final work, Birds of New Guinea, these were sold by subscription in 25 instalments, 320 prints in total that were usually bound by the buyer in five volumes.
Gould understood the power of the limited edition. Only 220 sets of prints were produced, each one coloured by hand. This massive project started in 1875 and was completed in 1888 by Richard Bowdler Sharpe after Gould died in 1881.
It is still possible to buy a complete edition of five bound volumes. The usual asking price is around $100,000, depending on condition and binding.
It's also possible to buy the individual prints for a few thousand dollars each.
Louis Kissajukian of the Antique Print & Map Room in the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney recently obtained a series of 35 of the most popular prints, sold with original letterpress descriptions.
Prices vary from $14,500 for a pair of red birds of paradise engaged in a courting ritual, down to $2150 for some detailed studies of the less flamboyant cassowaries.
The price scale is the result of a kind of evolutionary process of another kind.
The lurid colours and theatrical behaviour of the various birds of paradise have led to them becoming the most popular, and the most expensive.
It's no surprise that these birds were the headline act in David Attenborough's 1998 documentary series, The Life of Birds.
Other PNG birds with the "x factor" are the triton and blue-eyed cockatoos, both priced at $6500.
Gould seems to have emphasised the bird's personalities in these prints; quite an achievement when he and his team were based in London using dead birds as models, with field notes and sketches supplied by naturalists on location.
Those who buy these prints are often bird-lovers, including some who have made the trek to the steamy jungles of PNG to see these magnificent creatures in the wild. Some say it was the Attenborough series that inspired their interest.
Prices for these prints have increased in value since that series was shown, although the strictly limited nature suggests they should keep on escalating in value.
By coincidence, a copy of the five volumes of (to give its full title) The Birds of New Guinea and the adjacent Papuan Islands, including many new species recently discovered in Australia was listed at the Mossgreen auction of the collection of John and Marita McIntosh in October.
Estimates of $80,000 to $120,000 were reasonable, according to Louis Kissajukian, but the books failed to sell on the day. He says he recently sold a similar set in fine condition for $175,000.
Volumes in book format attract a different buyer to individual prints, where buyers can be more selective. The books are beautiful objects in their own right but unwieldy to look at. One spectacular print on the wall is now the preferred option.
Antiquarian books, prints and maps have had a resurgence in the past few years, with extraordinary prices being paid for certain examples. Also at the Mossgreen auction, the 22 volumes of Voyage de la corvette l'Astolabe, detailing French expeditions to the Pacific (1826-1829) sold for $228,000 IBP, around 10 times the pre-sale estimate.
This is a new record for this publication at auction.
To see a selection of prints from the sale, go to theage.com.au/money