One Picture of Mickey Can Be Worth a Thousand of Washington : Animation: Cells from classic cartoons are a hot collectible, with Disney films bringing in top dollar.
They’re cute, they’re furry, they have smiling faces and when you buy them, they can cost you a lot in increased house insurance: Cartoons.
Celluloids of characters from the best-loved animated feature-length films sold through galleries and at auctions can now command thousands of dollars.
“Disney is the supreme animator. They hold the price records and are the most desirable artworks,” said Steven Maycock, a cataloguer in the Collectibles Department of Sotheby’s in London. “Disney is as American as apple-pie and baseball. It’s indigenous to America.”
It began in 1938, when Disney released for sale some of animation cells from the first fully animated feature length film “Snow White.” They were sold through the Courvoisier Gallery in San Francisco.
A good “cell” has no flaking or cracking.
On average, about 12 frames, each photographed twice, are used to make up a second of film time. A cell with a painted figure on it is photographed frame by frame onto a set background. Some studios release a quantity of cells with standardized backgrounds.
A common one is of cells of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” against a background of the interior of a wooden cabin. Lucky collectors can still find work sold in its original frames, marked on the back of the frame with the date and month--December, 1938, Maycock said.
European investors interested in animation artwork will have to look harder than American enthusiasts. Of about 400 galleries for animated art in the world, 380 are in the United States, said Jean-Michael Zylberman, a director of Catto Animation in Paris.
Catto has two other galleries selling animation art in London’s Hampstead and in Munich.
Investors considering their first purchase can visit an animation art gallery, which will search for particular works of art and will have catalogues to chose from. Auctions of work are held at Sotheby’s and Christies. The catalogues will list prices and histories of the sale prices. In addition, investors can subscribe to the growing number of specialist magazines or visit the film studio stores, which often have a gallery attached.
Continental Europeans love the “Jungle Book,” but it isn’t as popular in the United States. Germans love Donald Duck. For fairy-tales, nationalism dictates preferences: British viewers prefer “Peter Pan” and “Alice in Wonderland"--films based on English classic children’s stories--while the French love “Snow White” and “Cinderella,” Zylberman said.
In 1955, when Disneyland opened in Anaheim, the theme park included a little shop selling animation art and line drawings, retailing for $1 to $20--they sold in the thousands.
The old acetate cells can now sell for $10,000 to $20,000 each. Drawings, especially from the 1930s, can sell from 200 pounds to 2,000 pounds. Drawings from films such as “Fantasia” or “Snow White” that are good quality can command prices of 2,000 pounds.
Animation art collector Chris Webb, Mexx (U.K.) Ltd.'s managing director, said British families who traveled to Disneyland in the late 1950s and early 1960s often bought cells and drawings as holiday souvenirs. They packed them away in the attic as their children grew up and left home.
“Cells and drawings often pop up at old boot fairs in the U.K.,” he said. At a fair in Manchester, the contents and junk of someone’s attic were sold, including original cells of Mickey Mouse, on offer at 50 pence each.
Warner Bros. recently opened a studio store in London selling merchandise, with a gallery selling animation artwork attached.
“There’s a range of cells and drawings of ‘Looney Tune’ characters including Daffy Duck, the Tasmanian Devil and Bugs Bunny,” said Robert Richman, a Warner Bros. salesman in London. “The original cells retail from $200 to $900, but if you buy a cell with a background, prices go as high as $1,500.”
Very few Warner Bros. cells survived their genesis in the 1930s through to the mid-1960s unless the animators themselves took cells of their work home.
Most of the drawings and artwork proved too bulky and expensive to store and were destroyed once the film was completed. Warner Bros. emptied warehouses full of artwork and burnt it as acetate cells contain traces of dynamite that can combust as the cells age and rot.
In addition, war-time austerity measures meant images used in some short films were simply washed off, so the acetate cells could be re-used. Cells that survived from “What’s Opera Duck?” can now sell at $10,000 each.
The largest collection of Disney work to survive was compiled by an animator who had worked on the films and whose sentimental attachment to the work led him to spend the 20 years following his retirement cataloguing material he had saved.
The John Basmajian collection was auctioned in pieces by Christies in New York in 1984--the first serious auction of such artwork.
The “key change was in the 1970s--prices for material from films made after the early 1970s slip as more cells were saved,” Zylberman said.
“Vintage art of the 1930s can get prices as high as $10,000,” he said. The world sale record was recorded at Christies in New York in 1991. It was a black-and-white cell of Donald Duck, from the short film “Orphan Benefit” which went for 286,000 pounds.
Smaller independent animators suffer in the art markets through lack of exposure, said Francie Thomas, a valuer at Sotheby’s in New York.
“The art produced is excellent but doesn’t have the longevity in terms of history and market share and lacks a huge marketing campaign to back it up,” she said.
Prices for cells from artwork used in the 15 minutes of animation in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” can range from 400 pounds to as much as three or four times that, art valuers said.
Disney animation holds the most appeal for investors. Thomas describes Disney as “inter-generational.”
“There’s a huge emotional reaction which the whole family can enjoy,” she said. The perennial favorites are Disney’s first four animated features--"Snow White,” “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia” and “Dumbo.”
Chris Webb of Mexx agrees. Webb started his collection with cells from “Winnie-the-Pooh,” bought from Disney’s animation shop at Walt Disney World in Florida.
He went to auctions in London and galleries in New York. His favorite cells come from “Pinocchio,” which came out in 1942.
“It gives me a real thrill if I watch a video of the film and freeze frame the picture of my cell, I can say I own that moment,” Webb said.
“The insurance on my house rises every time I buy another cell, I have to pay a higher premium.”
Thomas of Christies said cells with the master background from “Pinocchio” can retail at $20,000.
After each Disney film is released, a few cells are available for sale in the retail market and the sales have proved perennially popular.
Cells from “The Lion King,” Disney’s latest animated film on general release, are going to be auctioned by Sotheby’s, New York this year. Auctioneers expect cells to be bid as high as $4,000 to $5,000.
Cells from “The Lion King,” like those of “Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” are specially created for the auctions.
The developments in computerization means there aren’t necessarily the traditional cells to sell.
Animation is an expensive way to make films and highly labor-intensive. Auctioneers say it was just a question of time before computer graphics took over from animators laboring over hundreds of thousands of hand-painted figures.
Drawings are scanned by computers and the image is transposed on a screen. Animators can use the computer to enhance images, add color and create celebrated moments such as the ballroom dancing scene in “Beauty and the Beast.”
“We are coming to an end of an era--the end of celluloid, the end of an era of physical artwork,” Zylberman said.
“You don’t write now using a pen, you use a computer.”
Notwithstanding the advances of technology and computer graphics, a 50-year-old mouse raised the biggest smile among investors.
“Mickey Mouse makes the most money. In most people’s minds, Mickey Mouse is Disney,” said Maycock of Sotheby’s. “People anywhere in the world know who he is--he is part of 20th-Century culture.”
When you buy a cell, you may sketch your own happy ending.