Hansons’ books specialist Jim Spencer is used to letting the would-be consignors down gently when he has to tell them their prized work is one of the last four Harry Potter novels in question with the magic words ‘first edition’ – millions of which were printed and “most houses in the country will have one”, meaning a good signature or inscription is needed for any real worth.
If it says ‘first edition’, “really that’s a giveaway because those with the value don’t have that, just the 10 down to 1 number line” (although some later deluxe first editions have more collecting value).
Hansons has been holding specialised Potter auctions or sale sections since July 2019 and Spencer has become familiar with the highs and lows of the collecting field, including selling nearly 20 of the first edition, first impression …Philosopher’s Stone hardbacks.
Like The Beatles, James Bond or Titanic memorabilia, it has become a market in itself, capable of supporting both dedicated sales and a huge buyer base, even if it for just one key item.
While some are book collectors, Spencer says others “are young, very wealthy people in America particularly who just want a piece of the history and the beginning of Harry Potter.
“They buy the movie props as well maybe but I often get the impression they just want to get one thing. American buyers in the past have said ‘I really want to get this book in the sale coming up’ and talked to me about it – they are not collectors perhaps of anything else but that one thing is what they want; they grew up with Harry Potter, it’s nostalgia like most things.”
Another quirk of the market is that unlike traditional book collectors, for many Potter enthusiasts condition is often not so important (hence the high prices for the 200 ex-library and school Philosopher’s Stone first editions that are falling to bits and held together with Sellotape).
It is all about the phenomenon – owning a very early Potter item. “People have grown up with Harry Potter and have a lot of money”, adds Spencer. “They are not your traditional fussy book collectors, they almost like the fact it has been read to death, it embodies the whole mania. Nobody expected the fever that came about and that’s part of the romance of it with so few produced at first, it was a bit of an underdog.”
Given the price of early hardback first editions, where can a Harry Potter book collector find more affordable value now?
Even the paperback first edition, first impression …Philosopher’s Stone could now cost you maybe £7000-8000.
Proof of popularity
One aspect of the market which has experienced rising demand is uncorrected proof versions.
“As soon as it was published it quickly gained traction and took off and it wasn’t long afterwards that there was quite an exciting auction result for a first edition hardback. It became something you’d see in collectables guides very quickly, but the uncorrected proof wouldn’t have been treated that way in the early stage, that came about a little bit later and that has jumped in value considerably in recent years.
“People who are mad on Harry Potter appreciate the uncorrected proof is the first printed appearance of the work, it precedes that 500 – I think only 200 of the proofs were produced so it is rarer.”
Beware of fake signatures
Spencer suggests new collectors on a budget can aim for signed books in excellent, unread fine condition. However, he sounds a note of caution: “The market is absolutely flooded with fake signatures.” Not only that, but faked tickets and holograph stickers from JK Rolwing’s book tours and signings.
Watertight provenance becomes essential. This means that while some collectors can be sniffy about personal dedications to particular people, for Harry Potter books this can become a bonus.
“The more writing [inscription] you’ve got the better because the forger can hone their craft at faking JK Rowling signatures but can’t necessarily invent the little witty quips she puts into her dedications and they can’t fake all these different names. So wherever there is a bit more writing that is a really nice thing to own and the value should stay strong.”
Another factor that collectors are nervous about now in a world of culture wars is how JK Rowling’s well-known trans-gender views could affect the market, possibly putting buyers off and affecting an investment.
As so often now, partly it is about how much collectors can separate the artist or creator from the work itself (such as Eric Gill).
However, Harry Potter has become such a phenomenon that the market seems likely to endure.
As Spencer says: “Ultimately, how many books have had signing tours where the kids are queueing up along the street to meet an author and there are queues at midnight to get the latest book? That was and will remain in the history books. It is hard to imagine a book and series of books doing that now really.”
Shown above is one of only 15 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone competition prize editions published to mark the 15th anniversary of the Potter phenomenon. Signed and dedicated by JK Rowling, the books were never released for sale.
It was won by Carina Haouchine when she was a 15-year-old schoolgirl in 2012. She entered a competition organised by publisher Bloomsbury to find the UK’s biggest Harry Potter fan. Youngsters were invited to write a letter explaining why they loved Harry Potter and encouraged to make their entry as elaborate as possible.
Haouchine created a watercolour portrait on an envelope depicting the three main characters and made a hand-carved wand bearing a tag, ‘Douglas Fir with a phoenix feather core’.
The winner received one of the exclusive books and a family holiday to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort in the US while 14 runners-up – including Haouchine – received one of the books. Estimated at £8000-12,000 when it went under the hammer in Hansons’ Library Auction on September 5, it sold for £15,000.
Jim Spencer said: “This is technically the rarest edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Only 15 copies were produced and they were never offered for sale. It’s not recorded in the invaluable JK Rowling bibliography by Philip W Errington, which proves how scarce it is.
“In fact, until last year, the public had no idea what this book even looked like because there was no visual record of its existence online. None of the competition winners had shared images, there was really only a brief record of the competition itself.”
That changed in 2022 when Hansons sold the first known copy of one of these for Chloe Esslemont, who was also a runner-up in the competition.
The only known copy to have surfaced at the time, let alone be sold, it achieved a within-estimate £8000.