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The original 'Harry Potter' book cover art is expected to break records at auction

Thomas Taylor's original cover illustration for <em>Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone</em> (1997) is expected to break auction records at Sotheby's on June 26.
Thomas Taylor's original cover illustration for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997) is expected to break auction records at Sotheby's on June 26.

The book cover art that introduced readers across the world to Harry Potter is expected to break auction records next month.

This past week, Sotheby's announced the auction scheduled for June 26 in New York of Thomas Taylor's original watercolor illustration for the first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Published by Bloomsbury in 1997, the title kicked off the famous seven-book series.

In a statement shared with NPR, the auction house said the artwork is expected to sell for $400,000 to $600,000 — a record estimate for any Harry Potter-related material ever offered at auction.

With over 500 million copies sold worldwide across 80 languages, the Harry Potter series has become a global phenomenon.

Taylor's illustration — which depicts the boy magician with his trademark round spectacles and lightning bolt-shaped forehead scar boarding the train to Hogwarts from King's Cross Station's platform 9 3/4 — was first offered at auction at Sotheby's in London in 2001, according to the statement. At that point, there were only four published Harry Potter books, yet Pottermania was already taking hold: the artwork sold for a then-record-breaking 85,750 pounds.

Sotheby's said it expects the return of the artifact to the auction block to do exponentially better this time around, as the appetite for Potter-related fare has only increased over the past couple of decades with the release of the blockbuster films and various spinoffs. In 2021, an unsigned first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone sold for $421,000 at Heritage Auctions in Dallas — the current record for a Harry Potter-related item.

Richard Austin, Sotheby's global head of books & manuscripts, said in a statement that Taylor's work "serves as the visual blueprint for the boy wizard who has since inspired millions worldwide."

A rookie assignment

This handout from Christie's shows the cover of J.K. Rowling's first novel <em>Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone.</em>
/ Getty Images
Getty Images
This handout from Christie's shows the cover of J.K. Rowling's first novel Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone.

Illustrator Taylor was a 23-year-old recent art school graduate when he received the commission from Bloomsbury to create a cover illustration for a fantasy children's book by the then-unknown author J.K. Rowling.

It was the artist's first professional assignment. According to Taylor, he wasn't given much in the way of creative license.

"I was actually asked to paint this scene by the editor at Bloomsbury who said, 'could you please paint Hogwarts at King's Cross Station and Harry approaching the Hogwarts Express?' " said Taylor in a 2022 video interview for the J.K. Rowling online fan community, The Rowling Library. "I was very new and just starting out, so I didn't feel I could say 'No, I think it should be something different.' So I was just doing what I was told, really."

He read Rowling's manuscript on the train after that meeting — one of the very first people to do so.

"It was a stack of paper. It was only printed on one side. Chapter 11 wasn't there, because the author was changing something, so it was missing Chapter 11. And it had a few notes and things in it as well. So it was a very, very early printout," Taylor told The Rowling Library.

After delivering his painting to the publisher, Taylor said for a few months he used the blank underside of each manuscript page for sketching. "And then I think I put the rest of it in the recycling bin," he said. "Of course now I really regret that."

Mixed feelings

Taylor has gone on to become an award-winning children's book author and illustrator. His titles include the series Eerie-on-Sea. Bloomsbury reissued Philosopher's Stone as part of its 25th anniversary commemorative reprint of the Harry Potter books in 2022.

But Taylor said he long had mixed feelings about this early, giant success.

"Normally when you start out as an illustrator, you kind of hope that your first work will be a bit forgotten and then you'll develop and get better and better," Taylor told The Rowling Library. "But of course, in this case, this first piece of work has sort of followed me my entire career. So I look at it and I think, 'Why did I paint that? Why didn't I paint something more exciting?' "

But he said he's finally made peace with it — in part because of how prized his Harry Potter book cover painting has become at auction.

"It is quite striking when I see an auction catalog, and then there's a first edition Charles Dickens, and then Beatrix Potter or something, and then there's my picture," he said. "It is fun to see it appear in places like that."

Indeed, Taylor's artwork will be go under the hammer in June as part of a salethat includes works by such literary greats as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allan Poe — and a handwritten manuscript by none other than J.K. Rowling.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.