'Harry Potter' artwork sells for $1.92 million, blowing away record for any 'Potter' item

Artwork established early look for the character before book's 1997 release

Cover Image for 'Harry Potter' artwork sells for $1.92 million, blowing away record for any 'Potter' item
The original artwork for the first "Harry Potter" book was done by then-23-year-old Thomas Taylor before the book's 1997 release. (Credit: Sotheby's)

The original cover art for “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone" sold for $1.92 million at Sotheby’s on Wednesday, setting a new record that is more than four times the previous mark for any "Potter" item.

The old record was held by a first-edition copy of the book, which sold for $471,000 in December 2021.

The artwork's origins date back a year before the 1997 release of the book, when Thomas Taylor, a 23-year-old recent art school graduate, presented a few past works to the team at Bloomsbury publishing. He then soon received a call from Bloomsbury publisher Barry Cunningham to produce his first professionally commissioned work: It was a little-known book called "Harry Potter" by an unpublished author named J.K. Rowling, who had been rejected by 12 other publishers before Bloomsbury.

“(Cunningham) said he’d seen my samples,” Taylor recalled in a 2022 interview. “He had a book by an unknown author, and would I fancy doing the cover?”

He was paid around $750 to $800, which Taylor told cllct “was typical for a book cover at the time, especially when neither author nor illustrator were well-known.”

Taylor became one of the book’s first readers, spending two days creating the work based off an early manuscript and Rowling’s descriptions. Over those two days, Taylor would cement the look of Potter with his glasses, scar and all.

The minimal expectations of the book led to an extremely small first print run of just 500 copies, the finest of which have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years, most notably a copy that sold for a record $471,000 in 2021.

Taylor, who was working at a bookstore after the book's release, never bought a copy for himself. As the book became a phenomenon, visitors to the store often could not believe the artist behind the cover was still working a regular job.

“Normally, illustrators are keen to forget their very earliest work, but that’s not possible in my case,” Taylor said.

Taylor doesn’t appear to be too caught up in his flat fee, which seems nearly unimaginable considering the franchise would go on to sell 600 million copies, however, he notes he “was paid more in retrospect,” seemingly alluding to the more than $100,000 he would sell the work for in 2001.

Prior to that sale, Taylor told cllct he had kept the artwork in an “old envelope under [his] bed.”

“When the movies started coming out, I expected the books to be re-jacketed with film tie-in covers, so 2001 seemed to be the optimum moment to sell the art. It was auctioned at Sotheby’s for what seemed at the time to be a huge sum for a piece of cover art, and I was very happy with it,” Taylor recalled. “There isn’t really a scenario where I would still have this art now, and be selling it myself — I was always going to sell it back then.”

The massive price tag of the work, which previously set a record for the highest pre-sale estimate for a Potter related item, is not lost on Taylor, however.

“It’s exciting to see the image resurface after all these years — I never knew who the buyer was when I first sold the painting at auction, back in 2001. I’m more focused on my writing now, but seeing a one of my illustrations potentially selling for such a high sum is quite amazing for me.”

Will Stern is a reporter and editor for cllct.