Disney auction: Is animation art marketplace heating up?

May 09, 2011 | 8:00 a.m.
bambi Disney auction: Is animation art marketplace heating up?
Tyus Wong art of “Bambi.” (www.icollector.com)

Last week, we showed you some of the sweet artifacts on sale in the upcoming Profiles in History auction, and now animation historian and Hero Complex contributor Charles Solomon writes that the auction might be part of shift in the animation art marketplace.

A letter from Walt Disney that changed the history of animation and American popular culture, drawings from some of the Disney studio’s most influential artists, cels from UPA’s Oscar-winning short “Gerald McBoing-Boing,” and “Nightmare Before Christmas” artwork by Tim Burton are among the items to be sold at an auction of animation art and Hollywood memorabilia May 14-15.

After two moribund decades, animation may be rejoining the booming art market. During the ’80s, animation art was a hot commodity: In May, 1988, a collector paid $286,000 and $185,000 for two cel and background set-ups from the 1934 Disney cartoon “Orphan’s Benefit.” But the high-end market was the exclusive preserve of a few Hollywood moguls and foreign collectors. When one major buyer lost interest and sold off his collection at a fraction of what he’d paid for it,  prices plummeted.

The catalog for the upcoming “Hollywood 44” auction suggests the high-end market may be returning. “If you compare the estimates in this auction to what they used to get back in the ’80s, we’re still very low,” cautions gallery owner Mark Van Eaton, who organized the animation section of the sale. “However, I’ve been seeing a huge increase in interest in animation. We felt if we had enough quality artwork to put together a nice core auction, it might be the right time.”

Although many buyers still want cels of familiar characters, more collectors are buying pre-production art: concept paintings, character designs, storyboard panels and animation drawings. Dramatic preliminary paintings for “Sleeping Beauty” by Eyvind Earle have pre-sale estimates of $8,000 to $20,000. An exquisite watercolor of a forest for “Bambi” by Tyrus Wong carries an estimate of $15,000 to $20,000. Gustave Tengrenn’s detailed drawing for the opening shot of “Pinocchio,” when Jiminy Cricket hops into the village where he meets the title character, is expected to bring between $80,000 and $100,000.

bambi2 Disney auction: Is animation art marketplace heating up?

Tyrus Wong concept art from "Bambi." (www.icollector.com)

“Unlike the ’80s, when everybody was buying cels, drawings, concept art and storyboards have suddenly become as hot a collectible as cels, if not more so,” says Van Eaton. “And people are interested in who drew the pieces. I don’t remember that being the case back in the ’80s. These are people who really appreciate a drawing for what it is.”

An artist whose reputation has grown exponentially in recent years is Mary Blair. One of Walt Disney’s favorite designers, Blair’s imaginative use of color and form influenced the look of “Saludos Amigos,” “The Three Caballeros,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cinderella” and “Peter Pan.” Her work has become touchstone for a new generation of animators, and many of the most avid collectors are artists at Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks. After seeing the Blair studies (which carry estimates of $7,000 to $15,000 apiece), one animator said, “I may have to take out a mortgage on my house.”

Ubbe Iwerks and Walt Disney. (Disney)

Walt Disney and Ubbe Iwerks. (Disney)

The most significant item in the sale is a four-page, handwritten letter from Walt Disney to his friend Ubbe Iwerks, urging Iwerks to move from Kansas City to Los Angeles to work on the animation/live action “Alice” comedies, Disney’s first successful series. The letter apparently did the trick: Iwerks soon came to Los Angeles, where he not only animated the characters in the “Alice” films, but Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in Disney’s next series. Working from Disney’s sketches, Iwerks designed Mickey Mouse in 1928 and animated the first three Mickey cartoons virtually single-handedly. The letter carries a pre-sale estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. The two men later had a falling-out over artistic matters, and Iwerks left to start his own studio in early 1930. A signed agreement giving up his 20% share in the Disney Studio for $2,920 (!) is also in the auction — with an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000.

Although the Disney material commands the highest prices and the most interest, other great American cartoon studios are represented: sketches of Crusader Rabbit and Rags the Tiger from “Crusader Rabbit,” the first program animated for television, ($400-$600 apiece); cels from “Gerald McBoing-Boing” ($300-$2,000); cel and background set-ups from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” ($10,000-$20,000) and model sheets from “Jonny Quest” ($400-$1,500).

“We’re seeing a lot of new collectors, and we’re getting a lot of interest from France, Australia and England,” Van Eaton said. “I never thought we’d see another auction like this. I think it’s the best animation auction to come along in at least 20 years.”

Hollywood Auction 44 will take place May 14-15 at the Saban Theatre, 844o Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills (the animation auction is on May 14).

— Charles Solomon


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2 Responses to Disney auction: Is animation art marketplace heating up?

  1. blairfan says:

    I saw the Mary Blairs BEAUTIFUL! If they go for the right price, I'll totally get some more to go with the ones I scored from some galleries here in Los Angeles.

  2. KULT Studio says:

    Yes! The Blairs are amazing. We hope to add some to the KULT collection. Animation and pop art definitely seem to be on the upswing. Good to hear.

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