Something magical happened at an auction house in England last Wednesday: A first edition copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone sold for £6,200 ($7,008), and a first edition copy of the Chamber of Secrets sold for £660 ($746).
Who sold the copies? Tessa Prince, 65, a retired school administrator from a suburb outside of London. She’s no professional collector, and she didn’t buy the books thinking about their monetary value; she’s just a mom who wanted to see her two sons, John and Billy, read.
“Our sons were aged 10 and eight in 1997 and avid readers,” Tessa’s husband, Alan Prince, told Hanson’s Auctioneer’s. “When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came out, my wife went to the Lion & Unicorn bookshop in Richmond, London, and bought a paperback copy for £4.99 [$5.64]. We had no idea it was a first edition until years later.”
Tessa’s plan worked: John and Billy read the first book and were enchanted. “When Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was released in 1998, [Tessa] bought a hardback copy from the same shop,” Alan said. “It just happened to be signed by the author, J.K. Rowling. The shop thinks the signed copy must have been supplied by the publisher at the time. My wife was lucky enough to buy it. She paid the normal retail price, around £6.”
And then Harry Potter took on a life of its own. One of Tessa’s copies was signed by the author, so she wondered whether it was worth something. “When the Harry Potter phenomenon really took off, I did think our copy of the Chamber of Secrets might have some value because it was signed by J.K. Rowling,” she explained. She didn’t think about it again for about 25 years. “More recently, I checked the print line on the books’ copyright pages and realized they were first issues.”
Why are first editions so valuable? A first-edition book is one of the first ever books a publisher prints and distributes. According to Barnes & Noble, book collectors value them because they are the closest one can get to an author’s intent. Subsequent copies that have been corrected are called second edition, or second issue.
Indeed, Tessa’s copy of The Philosopher’s Stone had a typo, which proves that it’s a first edition. On the back cover, philosopher’s was spelled philosphers. Page 53 had another typo: The term “1 wand” was printed twice.
How To Tell If Your Book Is a First Edition
Of course, there’s a more official way of telling whether a book is a true first edition; it has to have a specific “printer’s key” and the words “first edition” on the copyright page. The printer’s key is a code that signifies whether the book was printed in a first, second, or subsequent printing. To be a first printing of the Philosopher’s Stone, the key must read:
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
If it’s hard cover, it also has to have the original design on the book jacket.
If you bought the first book in America and the title is Sorcerer’s Stone, (a US publishing house thought that American children wouldn’t read a book with the word “philosopher” in the title), fear not: Your book may still have value. Flipsy values true first edition copies of the Sorcerer’s Stone at $4,000 to $6,500. To be a first printing of the Sorcerer’s Stone, the printer’s key on the copyright page must read:
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2 8 9/9 0/0 01 02
Of course, there are a lot of caveats. Most Harry Potter books have little value beyond the cover price. But if you think you have a first edition on your hands, and it’s in good condition, you can get your book appraised at a professional book appraiser, professional book dealer, or professional auction house. Check out these guidelines on getting a book appraised to make sure you don’t get scammed.
What books should we check the value of next? Let us know in the comments.
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