November 17, 2017 update: Bonhams reclaimed the world auction record for the British first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in a November 15 sale when an author’s presentation copy, inscribed by Rowling, commanded £106,250 ($140,204) on an estimate of £30,000 to £40,000 ($39,600 to $52,800).
Update to the Update: Hooray! Heritage Auctions sold the British first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for $81,250–well above the $56,249 fetched by a different copy at Bonhams in November 2016. Congratulations to James Gannon and all at Heritage!
Update: As of 8 am EST, the British first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone offered by Heritage Auctions carried a high bid of $50,000, with buyer’s premium. That’s about $7,000 shy of the current world record for the book. The auction closes today.
What you see: A British first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, published in 1997. Heritage Auctions doesn’t typically publish estimates, but its internal estimate is around $20,000, and it had an opening bid of $10,000.
Who is J.K. Rowling? Who is Harry Potter? C’mon, really? I have to explain this? Okay, in case some form of the Internet survives million and millions of years into the future, but these cultural references do not: J.K. Rowling is the author of the Harry Potter series, which is about a maltreated orphan who discovers he is a wizard and gets to go to Hogwarts, a wizarding school in some vaguely British locale served by a shiny red train. Rowling’s publisher recommended she reduce her name to gender-ambiguous first and middle initials to better attract young male readers. (Her first name is Joanne; she doesn’t actually have a middle name, but chose ‘K’, for Katherine, to honor her paternal grandmother.) Harry Potter was a hit pretty much from day one and became an unimaginably huge global phenomenon. As of 2017, 20 years after the first Harry Potter book appeared, Rowling is the ninth-best-selling fiction author ever. She is 52.
How rare are first editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone? Pretty rare. Bloomsbury printed 500, 300 of which went to British libraries, where they presumably lived hard lives before they were retired from circulation in favor of fresher, later-printed editions of the book.
Is the copy now at Heritage Auctions an ex-library copy? No. It’s one of the 200 that were not sent to British libraries. James Gannon, director of rare books for Heritage, says this copy has had multiple owners. It is described as being in “nearly fine” condition, which Gannon says “has to mean it wasn’t handled very much.”
Even though only 500 copies of the British first edition of Harry Potter were printed, and we don’t know how many of them survive, I seem to see the book at auction fairly often. Why is that? In response, Gannon cites a favorite quote of his: “‘Nothing makes a book common like a high price.’ It’s true. They come out of the woodwork when people see an auction result and think, ‘I’d sell for that.'”
How valuable are ex-library copies of the British first edition? “Being an ex-library copy usually hurts the value a lot, but not in this case,” he says. He notes that while some British librarians probably realized the value of the book and pulled it and replaced it with a copy from a later press run, and it’s likely that some collectors approached British libraries and offered fat donations in exchange for their first editions, he has not handled any copies that have those backgrounds.
Are American first editions of the first Harry Potter book worth anything? Yes, but not nearly as much as the British first edition. “In my mind, it’s a $2,000 book,” Gannon says, adding that the American first edition press run was 35,000–significantly bigger than the British, and reflective of the hold the story already had on the imaginations of readers by the time of the initial American printing. “If you have a set of the seven American Harry Potters, and if one is the first edition in its jacket, that’s where most of the value is.”
As of August 30, which is about two weeks before the auction ends, the book had been bid up to $19,000. Does that mean anything? “Not to me. All that matters is the last number. It’ll make more than $20,000, that’s for sure,” Gannon says. “I do have clients who call me every few months and ask me when I’m getting a copy.” The auction record for a British first edition of the first Harry Potter book belongs to a copy sold at Bonhams in November 2016. It commanded £43,750 ($56,249), was described as being in “exceptionally fine” condition, and included a few interesting typos, such as spelling out the author’s name on the copyright page.
What else stands out about this book? “It’s interesting to me, from a pure market consideration, how this is a book everyone knows is very rare,” he says. “A lot of famous modern first editions, even The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, they’re coveted, and they come up, but Harry Potter is rare. If I was a collector, I’m not sure I could get a copy I can afford in my lifetime. As time goes on, it’s only going to get more expensive.” He recalled an episode from his previous role at Heritage Rare Book Shop in Los Angeles (no connection with the auction house), when he paid $15,000 for a signed British first edition, priced it at $30,000, and stocked it next to a first edition of Walden that was listed at $10,000. “People got peeved at us, but it was an instance of supply and demand with the Harry Potter book. The supply is tiny, and the demand is huge.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.