Exclusive Interview: MuggleNet Talks Rare Books with Jim Spencer of Hansons Auctioneers

If you’ve been in the fandom for a long time, there’s a good chance that you’ve wondered how much your Harry Potter books are worth or wanted a rare Harry Potter book of your own. The rarest Harry Potter books have been sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and one auctioneer in England has emerged as an expert: Jim Spencer, Associate Director & Head of Books, Prints, Maps, Manuscripts & Ephemera at Hansons Auctioneers.

 

Jim Spencer, of Hansons Auctioneers, poses with a copy of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" in a photograph.

Jim Spencer, of Hansons Auctioneers, poses with a copy of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”

 

MuggleNet had the opportunity to interview Spencer via email to find out more about what his experiences have been as an auctioneer in the world of Harry Potter books. Besides being told that he bears a resemblance to Harry, Spencer has auctioned off rare Harry Potter books that have come to him from around the globe. That included four first-print, first-edition hardback copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in December alone. (Only 500 such copies were ever printed.)

Naturally, we had to ask Spencer what advice he would have for us if we were to approach him with one of these exceptional books. While he mentioned that he wouldn’t provide investment advice, he told us that he has seen prices go up.

Even badly damaged copies were soaring way above anyone’s expectations. Condition is everything with books, but this all feels different. There are theories about young tech millionaires wanting first editions, not traditional book collectors, not necessarily concerned about condition, but they grew up with the books and want a piece of history. Such people might see the damage as part of its magic, its humble beginnings, and I must admit I feel that way when I handle these books – I can almost picture a seriously well-loved copy, falling to pieces, preserved in a glass case.

Given how popular rare Harry Potter books are at the moment, it also wasn’t surprising that Spencer told us that a lot of those hoping that their Harry Potter book might be worth a fortune aren’t so lucky.

Most people sending me enquiries have simply checked their bookcases and are hoping they’ve struck gold. Sadly, I have to let most people down very gently, but by the law of averages, hundreds of emails will eventually unearth a few very special books. Not all vendors are oblivious to what they own – I’ve had clients driving over to see me with their books in a locked briefcase, having been waiting years for this moment.

At the same time, unfortunately, there are those who are looking to take advantage of the situation. Spencer previously made a video for the Hansons Auctioneers Twitter account to explain how to spot a forgery of a first-print, first-edition hardback of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

 

 

Spencer told us more about the forgery featured in the video.

Receiving that book was a huge disappointment, but I wanted to give the world some positive outcome from it – so I made a video to help warn collectors. It was posted to me from Paris, and the client was adamant they’d bought it from a reputable dealer for a lot of money – I simply advised him to inform the police if he can’t get a refund!

There were multiple signs that tipped Spencer off that the book wasn’t what it seemed.

As soon as I opened the book, my excitement dropped. I could see the contents were right, but it was a paperback first issue in a completely modern hard cover. I think a similar trick was happening years ago, but later[-]issue hardback covers were being used – another reason to always check those ‘issue points’ on the back! This was a new development because it was a completely fake binding. The endpapers felt alien in my hands, the dampstaining internally didn’t match the pristine boards, and the printing of the covers was just wrong. I love prints, so I’m used to inspecting that side of things very closely.

So that others aren’t duped, he has reached out to his competitors in the bookselling world about it.

I’ve reached out to leading figures in the world of bookselling and suggested we all keep each other in the loop with the latest forgeries. Even if we’re normally competition, I feel we should look out for each other, the collectors, the market. It would be terrible if forgeries could eventually become so sophisticated that it requires chemical analysis of the paper, but perhaps that’s overly anxious. The nature of the book’s humble origins means cheap stock paper was used, so there will always be some very light toning from age – and this would be hard to contrive. That rogue copy didn’t get past me, but I’ll always hold back my excitement until I’ve inspected the book in the hand!

When it comes to books that are signed, Spencer told us, he would also urge collectors to exercise caution.

Speaking to big collectors, it sounds like convincing forgeries of Rowling’s signature are coming out of London, which is why I would be very cautious about touching anything without provenance. Clients are usually very happy to write me a statement about their experience at a signing event, which helps collectors bid with confidence but also celebrates the story behind the inscription. On that note, I’ve noticed bigger bidding battles for dedicated inscriptions, rather than just signatures, as I guess there’s more handwriting to analyse!

Beyond those first-print, first-edition copies of Philosopher’s Stone, Spencer explained that some copies of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban are becoming collector’s items, though this typically isn’t the case for the later books in the series.

Philosopher’s Stone is the big one, hardback or paperback. First[-]issue hardbacks of Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban generate excitement, the latter more so if it includes the dropped line of text error. The last four novels were published on a huge scale, even the first editions, and people were actively queueing up at midnight to get their hands on the latest book – so these are quite easy for collectors to find. Most ‘first[-]edition’ enquiries I receive are for the last four novels in the series. Anything signed is hugely collectable, but provenance is everything. I receive lots of enquiries with images of spurious signatures, which I won’t touch. I need to know how/when/where it was signed, especially as Rowling’s signature changes over time.

Spencer added that the nature of the Internet has helped inform people about which Potter books are actually rare, and there has been growing interest in those rare books.

If you have an interest in rare Harry Potter books or even movie memorabilia, Hansons is holding its first specialist Harry Potter auction, the Harry Potter Hogwarts Auction, on April 7. The auction will be held live online and will begin at 2:00 p.m. GMT. The catalog will be available for viewing on March 30.

You can read the full transcript of our interview with Jim Spencer below.

Full Transcript with Jim Spencer, Thursday, March 4, 2021

Have you noticed any particular trends in the number of people looking to sell their Harry Potter books at auction? In the number of potential buyers?

I discovered our first important Potter locally within Staffordshire. It was one of the famous 500 first issue hardbacks of Philosopher's Stone, purchased by the vendor for just £1! It made so much news around the world, it was even being discussed on breakfast television in the USA and Australia! I started receiving hundreds of calls and emails, and it's really taken off from there. Most of these enquiries are nothing, but I'm never dismissive; I'm always excited to hear and help - finding the good books in these emails is like panning for gold! The prices have been hopping up and up here, and there really seems to be a tangible sense of "Harry Potter fever" in these sales. Some of these vendors have simply checked their bookcases, having seen the news, others have been holding onto their first editions for many years and feel the market is strong right now. It's a global thing, I receive parcels from all sorts of places. I received one book from Luxembourg that sold to a collector in California! I think all this excitement here, all these enquiries, must've raised the profile and propelled the market for rare Harry Potter books.

From what we've seen at MuggleNet, many of the Harry Potter books being put up for auction appear to be from everyday people, for lack of a better term, rather than from collectors or even those who kept a book with the intention of reselling it someday. Have you found this to be the case?

Most people sending me enquiries have simply checked their bookcases and are hoping they've struck gold. Sadly, I have to let most people down very gently, but by the law of averages, hundreds of emails will eventually unearth a few very special books. Not all vendors are oblivious to what they own - I've had clients driving over to see me with their books in a locked briefcase, having been waiting years for this moment.

Obviously, there is a finite number of first-print, first-edition copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. If we were to come to you with one of those right now, what would be your advice?

Things feel exciting here. I would never try to predict the future of the market or offer advice on investment, that's not my job, and I would never pressure anyone into selling, but things feel very buoyant. I've seen the prices rise and rise in the sales here. Of those 500 first issues, I had four in the December sale. Even badly damaged copies were soaring way above anyone's expectations. Condition is everything with books, but this all feels different. There are theories about young tech millionaires wanting first editions, not traditional book collectors, not necessarily concerned about condition, but they grew up with the books and want a piece of history. Such people might see the damage as part of its magic, its humble beginnings, and I must admit I feel that way when I handle these books - I can almost picture a seriously well-loved copy, falling to pieces, preserved in a glass case.

Beyond the first-print, first-edition copies of Philosopher's Stone, which Harry Potter books tend to do the best at auction?

Philosopher's Stone is the big one, hardback or paperback. First[-]issue hardbacks of Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban generate excitement, the latter more so if it includes the dropped line of text error. The last four novels were published on a huge scale, even the first editions, and people were actively queueing up at midnight to get their hands on the latest book - so these are quite easy for collectors to find. Most "first[-]edition" enquiries I receive are for the last four novels in the series. Anything signed is hugely collectable, but provenance is everything. I receive lots of enquiries with images of spurious signatures, which I won't touch. I need to know how/when/where it was signed, especially as Rowling's signature changes over time.

Do you think that other Harry Potter books will become collector's items as time goes on?

Some were published on such a huge scale that sites like eBay are flooded with copies. I can't imagine things changing much in that respect, but we're seeing more and more interest across the board for the scarcer titles. I guess the internet has shown how common the common stuff is, and how rare the rare stuff is!

You've previously made a video for Twitter on how to spot fake first-edition copies of Philosopher's Stone. About how often do you encounter a fake, and how concerned should potential buyers be about the possibility of ending up with one?

Receiving that book was a huge disappointment, but I wanted to give the world some positive outcome from it - so I made a video to help warn collectors. It was posted to me from Paris, and the client was adamant they'd bought it from a reputable dealer for a lot of money - I simply advised him to inform the police if he can't get a refund! As soon as I opened the book, my excitement dropped. I could see the contents were right, but it was a paperback first issue in a completely modern hard cover. I think a similar trick was happening years ago, but later[-]issue hardback covers were being used - another reason to always check those "issue points" on the back! This was a new development because it was a completely fake binding. The endpapers felt alien in my hands, the dampstaining internally didn't match the pristine boards, and the printing of the covers was just wrong. I love prints, so I'm used to inspecting that side of things very closely. I've reached out to leading figures in the world of bookselling and suggested we all keep each other in the loop with the latest forgeries. Even if we're normally competition, I feel we should look out for each other, the collectors, the market. It would be terrible if forgeries could eventually become so sophisticated that it requires chemical analysis of the paper, but perhaps that's overly anxious. The nature of the book's humble origins means cheap stock paper was used, so there will always be some very light toning from age - and this would be hard to contrive. That rogue copy didn't get past me, but I'll always hold back my excitement until I've inspected the book in the hand! Speaking to big collectors, it sounds like convincing forgeries of Rowling's signature are coming out of London, which is why I would be very cautious about touching anything without provenance. Clients are usually very happy to write me a statement about their experience at a signing event, which helps collectors bid with confidence but also celebrates the story behind the inscription. On that note, I've noticed bigger bidding battles for dedicated inscriptions, rather than just signatures, as I guess there's more handwriting to analyse!

Is there anything else that you would like MuggleNet readers to know?

I'm very excited to say we're launching the first[-]ever Harry Potter Auction here on 7th April! This live online sale will begin at 2 pm - to help our bidders across the pond! I normally include lots of Potters in my wider Library Auction, but it just feels like it's become too important and needs to stand alone. The Harry Potter Auctions and Library Auctions are held at Bishton Hall - our country house saleroom in Staffordshire - and the dream is to make this our very own "Hogwarts". In more normal times, we'd love to welcome fans inside, serve "butterbeer", get some guest speakers, fancy dress. There's so much we could do, and we're keen to welcome consignments of movie memorabilia as well as books for these specialist sales.

 

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Mary W.

I am a Slytherin, a lifelong fan of Harry Potter, and a member of MuggleNet staff since 2014. In my Muggle life, I am passionate about human rights, and I love to travel around the world and meet new people.

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