Original 'Harry Potter' watercolor artwork to sell at auction

The original watercolor artwork is expected to sell for more than $400,000

Cover Image for Original 'Harry Potter' watercolor artwork to sell at auction
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 watercolor artwork for "Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone" will sell Wednesday at Sotheby’s, with an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000, the highest pre-sale estimate ever placed “on an item of any Harry Potter-related work,” according to the auction house.

Thomas Taylor, the artist responsible for the now iconic cover art, was one of the first readers of the book after he was commissioned by Bloomsbury publisher Barry Cunningham to create the cover for the little-known work, a year before its 1997 release.

The original watercolor artwork has the highest pre-sale estimate ever given to a Harry Potter-related item. (Credit: Sotheby's)
The original watercolor artwork has the highest pre-sale estimate ever given to a Harry Potter-related item. (Credit: Sotheby's)

It was his first professional commission at just 23 years old. The choice to assign the task to Taylor was likely a result of the lack of fanfare surrounding the first book from J.K. Rowling, an unpublished and unproven writer who had been previously turned down by 12 publishers.

The first artistic depiction of the character, Taylor’s image featured Potter boarding the train to Hogwarts in what has been “coined the ‘universal image of Harry Potter,'” the auction house wrote.

The original artwork has been sold previously, fetching more than $100,000 in a record-setting 2001 auction — around four-times the estimate at that time.

Jeremy O’Connor, co-founder of rare book marketplace Collectorsfolio and also co-founder of Manhattan Rare Book Company, believes the piece should outperform its estimate.

“In terms of exceptional cover art, a result in the $400,000 to $600,000 range would be fairly modest and maybe even disappointing considering previous results for exceptional 'Harry Potter' material,” O’Connor said.

Created in just two days using watercolors and black pencil, Taylor signed and dated the illustration. The young artist never actually purchased his own copy of the book after its release. Working in a children’s bookstore at the time, readers were shocked to learn he was the illustrator of the book, which had rapidly become a hit.

“Instantly recognizable today, Taylor's work serves as the visual blueprint for the boy wizard who has since inspired millions worldwide,” said Richard Austin, Sotheby’s global head of books and manuscripts, in a statement. “Taylor's charming work has become a vital addition to what is now the most beloved children's book series in history, perfectly capturing the enchanting and nostalgic universe of Harry Potter.”

First-edition copies of the first Potter book, of which only 500 were printed, have become some of the most coveted and valuable rare books of the modern age, with the record sale for a copy notching $421,000 in 2021.

The artwork is one of nearly 50 lots from the collection of Dr. Rodney P. Swantko, a specialist in oral and maxillofacial surgery who died in 2022, having amassed what Sotheby’s describes as “one of the most significant private libraries to appear at auction this century.”

Other selections from Swantko’s collection hitting the auction block include rare Edgar Allan Poe books and manuscripts, a first edition copy of “The Great Gatsby” inscribed by F. Scott Fitzgerald to his wife Zelda’s sister, as well as first-edition copies of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” ”On the Road” and other literary rarities.

Carrying the highest estimate of the entire auction is an autograph manuscript of “The Sign of the Four” by Arthur Conan Doyle, the second Sherlock Holmes novel ever written. Sotheby’s calls the manuscript, dated to 1890 and listed with an estimate of $800,000 to $1.2 million, “the most significant Sherlock Holmes manuscript extant.”

“It's a wonderful artifact,” O’Connor said of the manuscript, the oldest surviving example penned by Doyle. “It establishes the relationship between Holmes and Watson, and it adds so much nuance and depth to the character of Sherlock Holmes and the world he inhabits. It's thrilling.”

O’Connor expects the Doyle manuscript to exceed its estimate as well.

Will Stern is a reporter and editor for cllct.