The Indiana Historical Society says it plans to auction complete sets of valuable works by John James Audubon in April to raise money to benefit its mission.
The society paid $4,000 for "The Birds of America" in 1933 and $900 for "Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America" in 1951. The two sets combined are expected to fetch at least $3.3 million at the Sotheby's auction next spring.
"That's a pretty good rate of return," society President and CEO John Herbst said Wednesday.
Herbst said proceeds from the auction will allow the society to acquire more state-specific items and increase its storage.
“While these sets are rare and valuable, they were acquired when the Indiana Historical Society’s mission was broader, more eclectic and not as focused on Indiana-related history as it is today,” said Herbst.
Audubon established himself as the United States' dominant wildlife artist before his death in 1851. His "Birds of America" series was sold by subscription from 1827 to 1838 and featured 435 hand-painted plates depicting America's native birds. His "Viviparous Quadrupeds" was published between 1845 and 1854 and includes 150 color lithographic plates.
A rare first edition of "Birds of America" and a set of Audubon's "Ornithological Biography" sold for $7.9 million in 2012. Another complete first edition sold in 2010 for $11.5 million.
Indiana Historical Society spokeswoman Amy Lamb said the condition of the group's collection isn't as good as those recently sold, which affects the price Sotheby's estimates it will fetch.
Herbst said historical society leaders have been discussing selling the collection for some time because the items don't fit the society's focus on Indiana and the old Northwest Territory, and the society isn't a place that attracts people interested in rare art books. The group held off until now because of the economy.
He said auctions are the preferred way to dispose of items of value for organizations like the society because they have more transparency than arrangements with private buyers.
"We're fortunate on these two items that these were not the gifts of individuals or families," Herbst said. "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."
Proceeds from the auction will be used to establish an acquisitions fund that will allow the society to compete for items of Indiana interest, such as a Civil War letter written by a black soldier from southern Indiana that sold in March, Herbst said. The money also will pay to expand storage space to accommodate the society's collections for the next 30 years.
"It's a great trade-off," he said.