Animation art market gets lively again; after a turbulent transitional phase, the market for animation art is finally coming into its own

Animation art market gets lively again; after a turbulent transitional phase, the market for animation art is finally coming into its own – trendsetters: animation art

Julie Mehta

Few art forms have the universal appeal of animation art. Whether it’s a cel of Lady and the Tramp sharing a strand of spaghetti, Bugs Bunny duking it out with Yosemite Sam or Winnie the Pooh indulging in a pot of honey, these snapshots of cinematic moments often have a powerful emotional impact on viewers, who typically associate them with childhood. Yet the animation art market itself has been forced to grow up as it faced the end of studio art programs, the emergence of the Internet as a marketing force and the shift toward computer animation. But today, with a new core group of knowledgeable art distributors, a new museum in the works and even a new Oscar category for animated feature films, animation art is poised to draw an unprecedented level of interest and respect.

“The animation art market is in very good shape today,” said Graham Parker, director of the Animation Art Gallery in London. “It has been through a difficult phase where it could not differentiate between serious collectors and merchandise collectors. The latter were being fed by an ever-increasing amount of questionable product from the studio stores. We are now dealing with committed professionals who know their customers well.”

It’s a change that has made for more savvy consumers, according to Debbie Weiss, founder of the Wonderful World of Animation Art Gallery in California and the online gallery “The industry isn’t hyped up anymore. Now there’s a steady increase in the market of educated collectors who will stay in it,” she said.

Animation art falls into two categories: original and reproduction. The basic building block of animation is a cel. A character is drawn and painted onto a clear sheet of nitrate or acetate, which is then placed on a background and photographed. Running the frames together gives the illusion of movement. Original production art is actually used in the making of an animated film or television show, while limited editions are hand-painted reproductions of characters in an ideal pose or with a decorative background, normally released in sets of 500 or less. Sericels are reproductions not done by hand and sold in larger batches, numbering in the thousands.

“Animation art was a fast-growth industry for a long time and an emotional sell,” said Leslie Combemale. She co-founded ArtInsights Gallery in Reston, Va., during the peak of animation art in the late `80s, when celebrities like Michael Jackson and Steven Spielberg were collecting. Sotheby’s and Christie’s held live animation auctions several times a year, with some pieces going for six figures. In recent years, original art became more scarce with rising prices and the development of new technology, while studio-released reproduction art oversaturated the market. “Now Warner Bros. has dosed its stores, and they and Disney have gone to outside distributors. For a time, there were no new products, so some galleries that depended on limited editions and sericels went out of business,” added Combemale.

But galleries with the knowledge and passion to be in the market for the long haul survived, according to John-Anthony Cavanagh, director of sales for Animated Animations in New York, which struck a deal last fall to be Disney’s exclusive art cel distributor to galleries. Cavanagh reported that “Spirit of America,” a sericel featuring a flag-waving Mickey Mouse, has been one of its fastest-selling offerings ever.

Meanwhile, Ruth Clampett, daughter of “Beany and Cecil” creator Bob Clampett, has taken over the Warner Bros. distributorship with her company, Clampett Studio Collections. On its Web site, the Animation Art Gallery said of the takeover, “We have been in heaven. Finally we have been supported tremendously to ensure our collectors get access to all of the art they have been searching for.”

“It’s a refreshing change to have the studios out of it,” said Heidi Leigh, owner of Animazing Gallery in New York. “Corporate people were merchandising art like coffee cups. Now the industry has been redefined.” At Leigh’s gallery in Soho, Dr. Seuss drawings share wall space with Snoopy paintings and original production cels of Wile E. Coyote and Tom and Jerry.

Relatively unaffected by the market shake-up was Combemale, whose gallery specializes in vintage Disney art. She recently sold a cel with its original background, called a key set-up, of Figaro and Cleo from “Pinocchio” for $8,000. A Warner Bros. show saw prices ranging from $200 for drawings to $6,000 for a set of six production cels of subjects including Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam and other characters dreamed up by legendary animator Chuck Jones, who passed away earlier this year.

Vintage Animation Cels

Nostalgia is obviously a key element of the original production art market. Vintage collectors especially seek out cels from prewar Disney films, like “Bambi” and “Pinocchio,” for their sentimental appeal and their historical significance. Many prize pieces have already been snatched up by collectors who are unlikely to part with them.

Still, since animated films were typically shot at 24 frames per second, one would think there’d be plenty of cels to go around. At that rate, a 90-minute film equals 129,600 frames. The fact is, some scenes were filmed at fewer frames per second and many frames were never viable as collectors’ items because of awkward character poses or dosed eyes. Even if they were, though, thousands of cels were washed and reused as a cost-cutting measure. Many thousands more were destroyed when nitrate was identified as a fire hazard (later cels were made of acetate). “It was like having a warehouse of old papers for the studios,” said Weiss. “If you wrote a term paper in college and turned it in, you threw out your notes. That’s what the studios did with the cels after the films were completed. Much of what’s left from that time is stuff animators or workers at Disney saved.”

Some pieces of original production art were also marketed by Courvoisier Galleries in the late `30s and sold at Disneyland Art Corner from the mid-`50s to early `70s.

“The Little Mermaid” was the last Disney film using traditional animation techniques. American Royal Arts, one of the nation’s largest suppliers of animation art and exclusive distributor for cartoon characters including Garfield, Betty Boop and Popeye, sold production cels from “The Little Mermaid” at $4,000 each. Prices for other pieces at the gallery have ranged from $400 for a Winnie the Pooh cel to $25,000 for Snow White at the wishing well.

The newest Disney release, “Lilo and Stitch” and Dreamworks’ hugely popular “Shrek,” Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature Film, feature only preliminary drawings brought to life by a computer. Marketable art from these films, then, principally takes the form of posters and collectibles. The Art of Monsters, Inc., a book of original sketches and layouts from the Pixar hit film, for example, sells for $40.

The Print Matter

Limited editions and sericels help fill a demand for art from recent movies that were not traditionally animated, like “The Lion King,” or for scenes from classic films like “Snow White,” where the original production art is often very expensive. Most television shows have moved on to computer animation, though some, like the “Powerpuff Girls” and “The Simpsons,” are still made the old-fashioned way.

The Simpsons is a big seller for Weiss, who sells original cels from this program for between $400 and $650. Prices are relatively moderate because the show is still running and production cels are continually released. Limiteds of recent Disney films go for between $2,000 and $5,000.

“The Internet has changed all the roles,” Weiss said. “It shows people art they didn’t know existed or thought was out of their price range.”

A recent search on eBay found a limited edition from “The Lion King” going for $1,500 and an original cd from “The Pink Panther” with a bid for $50. Sotheby’s brought in more than $600,000 last year in an online auction of a private collection of pre-war animation art. Buyers came from all over the United States, Europe and Australia. “The online medium truly introduces animation art to a much broader audience,” said Dana Hawkes of Sotheby’s Collectibles Department.

Indeed, Weiss said she sells to many first-time collectors in America and abroad. Combemale, Gladstone and Cavanagh all said they sold abroad too, especially to Europe, Japan and Australia. Cavanagh explained, “Animation art is the only purely American art form other than jazz. Mickey Mouse is a huge character overseas.”

Added Combemale, “I saw `Cinderella’ in French as a child when I lived in France and `Aristocats’ in Italian when I was in Italy. This art is based in people’s memories, and everyone knows it no matter where they live.”

Despite this, there have been few museum shows addressing the expansive legacy of animation art. A recent exhibit at the Fullerton Museum Center in southern California focusing on Saturday morning cartoons of the last 50 years was the second-best attended show of the past six years, according to Curator John Karwin. The exhibit is slated to show at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum this fall, which is now the only museum space in the country dedicated to cartoon art after the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Fla., dosed due to financial troubles.

But as another sign of growing attention to animation arts, a new museum was chartered last October. Lawrence Klein, founder of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, was negotiating for a permanent space for the museum in New York when the attack on the World Trade Center scrapped his plans. Now Klein is working with the city to locate a home for the new museum, which is already accepting pledges of art donations (, and he expects to have the museum fully functioning by the end of 2004.

“People want to see a museum like this,” said Klein. “Animation art is accessible to everyone. You might not know who Dali or Chagall are, but you definitely know Garfield and Mickey Mouse.”

So after some growing pains, the future of animation art looks bright. “Animation art is unpretentious,” said Leigh. “It opens a place in your heart that is joyous. And people need that joy right now.”


* Animated Animations, (212) 741-0002

* Animazing Gallery, (212) 226-7374

* ArtInsights Gallery, (703) 478-0778

* Artistic Innovations Inc., (416) 638-3193

* Clampett Studio Collections, (323) 468-1281

* Fullerton Museum Center, (714) 738-6545

* Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, (212) 254-3511

* The Animation Art Gallery, +44 (0)207 255 1456

* Wonderful World of Animation Art Gallery, (310) 623-1833

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