Original Harry Potter Cover Art Sells for $1.9m at Sotheby’s

Harry Potter Book illustration

The original watercolour illustration for the cover of the first Harry Potter book has fetched $1.9 million, shattering the previous record by nearly fourfold. This makes it the most expensive piece of Harry Potter memorabilia ever sold and perhaps the most costly modern book illustration sold at auction.

The artwork, created by Thomas Taylor in 1996, captures the initial depiction of the boy wizard that has since become iconic. At 23, fresh out of art school, Taylor presented his dragon sketches to Bloomsbury Publishing, which led to a pivotal call from publisher Barry Cunningham. Taylor recalled in a 2022 interview, “He said he’d seen my samples and had a book by an unknown author and asked if I’d like to do the cover”.

Taylor was among the first to read the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone manuscript, complete with editorial notes. He was tasked with visualizing J.K. Rowling’s descriptions. In a 2010 interview, Taylor noted that his initial brief included chapter heading illustrations, but this was soon refined to cover art only. His communication was solely with Cunningham, who had taken a chance on the book after it was rejected by 12 other publishers.

Utilising Rowling’s vivid descriptions, Taylor’s artwork brought Harry Potter to life with his distinct features: dark hair, round glasses, and a lightning bolt scar. This portrayal has since defined the global image of Harry Potter:

“Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he was because all he had to wear were old clothes from Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Sellotape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his appearance was a skinny scar on his forehead, which was shaped like a bolt of lightning.”
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Chapter 2.

The illustration, more detailed than its printed counterpart, features Platform 10, Harry’s distinctly shabby Muggle clothing, and a dramatic plume of steam and stars from the Hogwarts Express. This image, imbued with a sense of magic, now evokes deep nostalgia for many.

The soaring value of Philosopher’s Stone artefacts is notable. When Taylor’s cover art was first auctioned in 2001, only the first four books of the series were published. Readers worldwide waited another six years to uncover Harry’s fate and the future of Rowling’s wizarding world. This illustration, unseen for 23 years, resurfaces as a new generation discovers the enchantment of the Harry Potter saga.

Provenance: Sotheby’s London, 10 July 2001, lot 612 (price realized: £85,750).

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