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SCIENCE MUSEUM MUST DECIDE FATE OF VOLUMES AT CHRISTIE'S

Now that the Milestones of Science book collection has come home, the Buffalo Museum of Science must resolve two related issues:

When to auction off the incomplete "Birds of America" folio it received from the Buffalo and Erie County Buffalo Public Library in return for the rare editions.

Whether more than three dozen lesser natural science volumes that followed the Milestones to a New York City auction house two years ago should still be sold or brought back.

After spending much of his first year on the job dealing with the inherited Milestones controversy, Michael J. Smith, museum president, seems in no hurry to tackle either question.

He has yet to approach Christie's in Manhattan, where the Milestones were set to be sold before a firestorm of criticism forced the museum to take them off the auction block two years ago, about selling the John James Audubon "Birds" folio.

"We need to consult with them," Smith said.

Two years ago, Christie's pegged the value of the incomplete set of Audubon prints at about $1.28 million. The museum plans to use proceeds of the sale to fund endowments and the work of its research staff.

Meanwhile, Smith has advised the museum board of managers not to rush the sale of about four dozen books left behind at Christie's when the 198-volume Milestones set was shipped back to Buffalo earlier this month.

The volumes were part of a supplementary list approved for sale by the board in July 1994, after the Milestones were packed off to Christie's. The intent was to put them up for sale with the more important Milestones.

Unlike Milestones, which includes works hundreds of years old, many written by such famous authors as Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin, and which was expected to fetch $1.4 million to $1.8 million at auction, the additional volumes are more obscure.

But they are by no means worthless. Christie's appraised them at $356,500.

Among the more valuable, according to the auction house, are a five-volume set, "Humming Birds," estimated to be worth $40,000 to $65,000; the five-volume "Great Britain," $30,000 to $45,000; and the 37-volume "Description de l'Egypte," $20,000 to $30,000.

The supplementary group includes mostly natural history books collected in the 1930s, at the same time as the Milestones, but deemed less important.

Some board members are impatient to sell the books, but Smith has urged caution.

"I said, 'Wait a minute. Maybe we will proceed with a sale, but first let's consult with the staff,' " he said.

If the books go on the block, it probably will be as part of a larger sale by Christie's, which does a brisk trade in books and prints.

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