The medium of rare

Harry Potter's very first appearance in a hardback edition can fetch $40,000.
Harry Potter's very first appearance in a hardback edition can fetch $40,000.

PAST the aisles of Australiana, the antique prints, the explorations of Cook and La Perouse and the mammals of John Gould, I came to a glass case containing a familiar sight.

There it was, the Hogwarts Express and the boy with the glasses: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, a book that practically every kid has had in the house at one time or another. But this was the 2012 ANZAAB Rare Book Fair, held at the University of Melbourne last weekend. What was a novel that has sold millions of copies doing here? And was the price really $40,000?

London book dealer Peter Harrington explained. This was one of the rare hardbacks from the first edition, published on June 30, 1997. Bloomsbury was cautious with this new, unknown author, J.K. Rowling, and printed only 500 hardback copies. Of these, 300 went into libraries, where they suffered a lot of wear and tear. So, only about 200 are still in circulation, and must be in pristine condition to fetch this kind of price.

Harrington says that at first the book world was sceptical that these hardbacks would attract interest. But two weeks before the first Harry Potter movie came out, he sold the first copies he acquired for $15,000 each, and the price has rocketed since. The first buyers were speculators, but nowadays the buyers are serious collectors, the kind of people who have Shakespeare folios. ''It's changed everything,'' Harrington says, ''and I think it will last.''

Next-best thing to that first-printing hardback is a first-edition copy signed by the author. Harrington had two for sale: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for $7200, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for $4800.

The wonderful thing about the Rare Book Fair is that it's so eclectic: among them, the 35 exhibitors offered something for every taste and every pocket. True, many of the attractions were beyond the means of the average punter - who but a dedicated and wealthy collector is going to fork out $85,000 for a single page? Not any old page, mind you - a leaf from The Gutenberg Bible, the first complete book in Western culture printed by the use of moveable type, taken from an incomplete copy.

For those with a fancy for a single page but with less cash, the Victorian book dealer Littera Scripta was offering exquisite leaves from mediaeval liturgical chants (they are taken from ''wrecks'', manuscripts already broken up). Even if all you had was $20, you could buy a quaint little gem such as Fifty-One Impromptu Conjuring Tricks.

There were a lot of ''What happened to … ?'' moments as I wandered round the booths. What happened to that beautiful pop-up book of Gulliver's Travels I had as a kid? I probably pulled it to pieces. Here was an identical copy, with illustrations by pop-up master Voitech Kubasta, for $135. What happened to my three-volume set of Lord of the Rings? Here was one that looked just the same - a first edition from 1954-55 for $37,500.

If you're wondering, ''What happened to my hardback copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone?'' and you can lay your hands on it and it's still in good condition, there are a few things you need to check to discover if it's one of the precious first-edition hardbacks. Perhaps the most arresting is a mistake.

On Page 53, in the list of supplies that Harry gets from Hogwarts, the item ''1 wand'' appears twice.

So, two wands, and you hit the jackpot. Good luck!

This story The medium of rare first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.