the secret world of animation art sales and collections

By Allen Pryor

1: The Scene

A nervous collector is waiting outside of an auction house waiting for the "last of the true Dali's" auction block to start. He had won a lottery system to determine who could bid on the work this day. Little details about the paintings themselves are given, just the assurance that they are genuine works by Dali, although there are rumors that these paintings are more collaborations than pure Dail’s. The nervous collector looks around to try to see if maybe he can find some information on the auction block from other bidders. He is approached by a scruffy young man in a patterned print suit with strange looking shoes and a baseball cap on. He doesn't recognize the brand of clothing he is wearing, but recognizes that there is a distinct cartoon character on the hat. The man introduces himself "Man, I'm excited! I've never been to such an important auction before! I can't wait to buy a Disney original production cell, especially one of this quality."

"Disney?" perks up the confused collector in response to the man. "I believe you are at the wrong auction, this is the 'Last of the True Dalis' sale block."

"No, this is the right auction! Absolutely certain, although I'm not sure how much of his work will be sold. You do know about the auction before this right? Why this is happening?"

Puzzled and distressed the collector responds, "What auction? Whatever are you talking about?"

"So you haven't heard? Someone stole work from Roy Disney, mostly from the film Destino and was caught. The pieces were resold at a police auction last week by the accuser. It was collaboration between Walt Disney and Salvador Dali. They'll be selling work signed by both."

The Odd Couple

2: The Explanation

The imaginary scenario above is an example of a prestigious 'animation art' sale and a conversation between a fine art collector and an 'animation collector'. Obviously, they are not speaking the same language, either economically or aesthetically. But what is an animation collector? Say you’re talking to someone at a party and you find out this nice person you have been pleasantly conversing with is a collector of stop-motion figures, would you view them on the same level as a casual stamp or do-it-yourself model car collector? Or would you strike up a conversation about serious art investment and what possible insurance they might have purchased for the work? Say this person had, just for example, a set of George Pal's wooden replacement figurines from his academy award winning film Tulips Shall Grow. Where would you imagine them to be: on the dining room table or under UV-resistant glass.

Tulips Shall Grow, simply beautiful

To the average individual this might seem to be an odd question, but to an animator, animation historian, or animation collector, this is both a business tactic and an obsessive fascination. The auction blocks for these items are charged with seemingly uncontrollable and unfathomable randomness. An item that one day goes for a hundred and fifty bucks may go for as much as three thousand dollars the next week. This is the animation collector and their fascination, and I don't blame them for being stunned. The reader who is a collector or considering becoming one should consider the opportunities in the animation pre-production market.

3: The New Buyer market

Buyers and Sellers
The new buyer market in animation pre-production work has done something radical to art collection: it has taken a proactive approach that involves random exposure rather than calculated releases. In other words, its intrinsic value grows naturally based on public favor rather than calculated market appraisal. Since appraisal is used to separate fraud from the frame-worthy, buyers rely more on tracking origins of the products themselves and take appraisal into their own hands. If you think I'm writing this paper to define the market you would be wrong, because this is impossible. I'm claiming that animation art collecting is growing and overflowing at an uncontrollable rate and that it is challenging the way art is priced and what is for sale. I'm also claiming that it's extremely valuable for the same reason.

Much like the diamond or gold market scarcity can be a welcoming harbor for pricing. Disney held one of the first publicly held auctions for animation work, selling Sleeping Beauty production cells for blah, blah, blah. We get it! Disney has been driving up the price of animation for years. They had to survive a financially rocky beginning and will not stop now that they are ahead. Based on their dedication to the quality of their work in the form of painted cells, they added "motion studies" to the history of fine art. However the schools of surrealism, or impressionism would not likely recognize animation as a brother or even a distant cousin. Photography is now recognized as a fine art and worthy of spots in high-end galleries, but animation is still waiting for its day. However thanks to a good friend, film, animation has sustained its price value well over the years, absent from the mediums and techniques that fathered its existence as an art form. Thanks to rotoscoping, mixed media, and mixed live action, animated works became an adjunct to the price of film paraphernalia. As with Cher's panties or Einstein’s glasses, price has a direct correlation to fame.

Go Donald, Go!
However misrepresentation litters the history of animation, and obscures the value of production works based on political agenda. Disney and other studios commissioned animation shorts for military training and propaganda during World War II. These are aesthetic, historical and national treasures and should be valued as such. Instead, these same films are passed around on bootleg VHS tapes found in thrift stores across the nation mixed in with Bears impersonating hillbillies and early jazz music videos. Feature film production works tend to gain more value because they have forces behind them that drive up their costs. 

By holding back works for personal reasons, as well as preserving records for educational reasons, animators have driven prices through the roof. In addition, the more notoriously ephemeral the work, the more sought out it will become. There have been many mad dashes to recover work before it disappears forever, regardless of what bargain bin it might be found in. This is one of the mysterious yet heavily worthwhile endeavors of the animation art collector. These days there is a multi-million dollar market in stock film footage that is continuously sold out for rights. One can only dare to wonder what is going on under the radar in ancient animation scavenging.

Ubb Iwerks drawing the mouse
However, there are, like every art market, price brackets of different caliber for the immediately determinate market. To put some gravity on the imaginary scenario I provided earlier, I found an example from a 2014 auction catalogue, Profiles in History. In this massive 314 page auction catalogue the price ranges go from cheaper than a new game console ("$100-$200 Animation Auction 66 pg. 7) to the price of a small home ("100,000-$150,000" Animation Auction 66 pg. 139). My favorite piece from the catalogue, an oil painting by chuck jones, is priced somewhere between the two extremes ($40,000-$60,000, Animation Auction 66 pg. 47). While these prices might be determined more like a cage match of constantly bickering old men, they are nonetheless agreed upon by investors. An Ubb Iwerks production cell is worth more than an Walter Lantz prodction cell. This is a fact. Unless.... we're talking about a Walter Peregoy "painting" against, an Ubb Iwerks "sketch". At this point the market comparison starts to follow rules similar to fine artwork comparisons. However reliable these rules may be more volatile and exciting factors are always in the horizon.

How much is this power worth?
It may sound like children's dribble but I had an exciting opportunity to watch an auction for a Dragon Ball Z original cell. I asked my roomate to take a screen shot of the event at closing date of the auction on April 27th 2015. It had a start price of 8,000 yen (Approximately 66.55 US Dollars). The piece was a comical bit from an episode of the Japanese made cartoon that was vastly inappropriate yet shown on live television on weekday afternoons on what was considered children's programming. Whether a symbol of the mindset of the average human's ruin or the sheer value of such an odd specimen, the Cell ended up closing at a purchase price of 316,000 yen (2,628.84 US Dollars). This was put up for auction by an independent seller on something the equivalent of a Japanese EBAY. It was not appraised, and works on a level of buyer trust unequaled by any other market. However volatile this market may be, a 3,850% increase in value in less than a week of market exposure is nothing to sneeze at.

Not a bad price

©Allen Pryor and the CCA Arts Review

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