19th-century book of life-sized bird paintings reprinted

Mr Pote Lee, 67, owner of Bangkok-based publishing firm iGroup, with a copy of the Birds Of America reprint, at Alma by Juan Amador restaurant in Goodwood Park Hotel.
Mr Pote Lee, 67, owner of Bangkok-based publishing firm iGroup, with a copy of the Birds Of America reprint, at Alma by Juan Amador restaurant in Goodwood Park Hotel.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

It is a book that would set many a collector's heart aflutter.

In 2010, a first edition of Birds Of America was sold at a Sotheby's auction in London for more than £7.3 million, a world record for a book.

The book, a four-volume set of 435 life-sized paintings of birds, published in the early 19th century by American painter John James Audubon, took 12 years to complete.

Only 120 copies are known to have survived, including one in Japan, the only copy in Asia.

Mr Pote Lee, 67, owner of Bangkok-based publishing firm iGroup, has long heard of the book and thought of acquiring reprints as the original is too expensive.

When the search for reprints proved futile, he thought, why not reprint the book himself?

He says his friend, late Japanese antique bookseller Mitsuo Nitta, told him: "Lee-san, it's going to cost a lot of money."

But he decided to give it a try and the result is 100 sets of reprints of the four volumes, which iGroup jointly published with Mr Nitta's Yushodo Group. The two firms divided the sets equally between them.

Now Mr Lee hopes to find buyers in Singapore for these reprints. Each set costs US$30,000 (S$41,500) for loose pages and US$40,000 for hand-bound copies.

While his Japanese partner has sold about half of its copies, Mr Lee says he has sold very few.

He has donated some sets to public libraries in China and Taiwan. A set was also given to the Taman Jurong Citizens' Consultative Committee under Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Mr Lee says there is a very small market for reprints of rare books. "It's not to make money. It's to make myself feel good," he says.

Mr Lee, who was born in Myanmar (then Burma), but moved to Thailand as a young man for better prospects, says what he loves most about Birds Of America is that it represents freedom.

"I love freedom," he says, making the motion of wings flapping.

He wants to show the younger generation how good book publishers and illustrators were 200 years ago, even without advanced equipment, he says.

"The second reason is to show the younger generation, 'Look, you guys need to work harder to be better than that,'" says Mr Lee, whose company's core business is distributing scientific technical scholarly information in digital format.

Birds Of America is made up of life-sized drawings of birds, which Audubon travelled to forests, fields and swamps in Alabama, Florida and as far away as Canada to draw and paint.

Big birds in the book include the snowy owl, American flamingo and wild turkey. Smaller ones include the Florida jay and prothonotary warbler. A handful, such as the Carolina parrot, have since become extinct.

Each volume of the book was published as a double elephant folio of about 100 by 68cm.

Reprinting Birds Of America was no easy job, says Mr Lee.

State-of- the-art cameras used for satellites had to be bought and special paper made for the reprints, he adds.

There are two other reprints of the work - the Amsterdam edition in 1971 (250 sets) and the Abberville edition in 1985 (350 sets).

After Birds Of America, Mr Lee has lined up another antique book project, a print-on-demand service for The Description De l'Egypte (Description Of Egypt) - a series of 23 publications, appearing first in 1809 until the final volume in 1829, done by a team assembled by Napoleon Bonaparte of France.

"I might do a collection of rare books about Asia in English," Mr Lee says, adding that there is likely to be a lot of interest in rare books about Chinese history. He did not cite any title.

While there are no plans to exhibit the drawings, some of the prints from Birds Of America are displayed on the walls of Alma by Juan Amador, of which Mr Lee is the controlling shareholder, at Goodwood Park Hotel.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2017, with the headline '19th-century book of life-sized bird paintings reprinted'. Print Edition | Subscribe