Comics Shop: How three $1 million+ sales affected the comics market

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Early 2010 was marked by a trio of high-end sales of historically significant comics. Those results have changed everything the world has imagined about comic-book values.

“Now, comic books have entered the realm inhabited by fine art, rare wines, one-of-a-kind jewels, and the like,” said Vincent Zurzolo, co-founder of ComicConnect, which on Feb. 22 sold a copy of Action Comics #1 (Jun 38, the first appearance of Superman) for $1 million via its website.

Three days after Zurzolo’s eye-popping Superman auction, Heritage Comic Auctions sold Detective Comics #27 (May 39, the first appearance of Batman) for $1,075,500.

While those two key comics were each graded 8.0 (Very Fine) by Certified Guaranty Company, another copy of Action Comics #1, this time graded 8.5 (Very Fine+), the highest grade received for that issue to date, was sold March 29 for $1.5 million by ComicConnect.

Comic books have been thrust into the conversation of what a well-balanced investment portfolio contains.

Heritage Director of Operations—Comics Division Barry Sandoval told Comics Buyer’s Guide, “I think this is a tipping point for comics sales, since we’re talking about comics from the 1930s.

Supply is limited and, in those higher grades, almost non-existent. Now, if a Silver Age comic book [that is, one distributed after 1955] would sell for $500,000, that would be close to folly in my book, since you never know how many more copies are out there.”

Zurzolo said, “I believe people will look back on these sales in the next few years or less and think, ‘Boy, that was cheap!’ This has happened time and again in the collectibles world. A record price is reached, people gasp, and then, a few years later, they look back and wish they’d bought the book.”

The tide raises many boats

How will these events affect pricing overall? ComicBase and Atomic Avenue creator (and Comics Shop co-author) Pete Bickford said his evaluations had already priced Action Comics #1 at $1 million in Near Mint (equivalent to CGC 9.4) and had since raised the Near Mint price to more than $1,250,000. (No copies in that condition have ever been reported.)

Detective Comics #27, which his service had previously priced at $225,000 in Near Mint, was at more than $940,000 but was expected to clear the $1 million mark soon. (Sales of other copies of the issue in lesser grades had kept his price-guide estimate from immediately vaulting over the barrier.)

An eventual $1 million price for such comics as Action #1 and Detective #27 has been discussed for years among high-end dealers, including rumors of such a bounty for a Near Mint copy of Action #1, but few had expected two comics to break the barrier in the same week — with a third adding to the mix within a month and a half.
But what about lower-grade comics? Do these sales affect their price?

Sandoval said he didn’t think they would. “Elite collectors tend to want the very best and be bored by second-best,” he said. “I personally would love to have the 10th-best existing copy of Detective Comics #27, but that’s just me!”

Zurzolo disagreed. “For books that are rare or lower-grade copies of key issues, you will see an increase in value.”

The sales have spurred interest in other comics.

Heritage’s Detective #27 sale came near the start of a multi-day Signature Sale, and Sandoval said, “We couldn’t really focus on that sale too much, since we had the rest of the auction to get through.”

The sale did help the firm set a record for a Signature Sale’s total results, with a final total of $5.6 million.

Zurzolo said that his pair of Action Comics #1 sales has attracted a significant increase in customer interest in other prominent comics. “Customers are calling, looking for certain books,” he said, “and not just Superman and Batman.

“These high-end sales produce a certain amount of confidence in our firm, especially for people hesitant to cash in securities and invest in a vintage comic book.”

With the security added by CGC’s third-party grading service leveling the playing field so that experienced and first-time sellers can identify the items and their quality on an equal basis, it is simpler these days to market such collectibles.

Moreover, unlike many other pop-culture items, most comics are relatively easy for even newcomers to identify to potential buyers.

What’s next?

As to the next comic book that might join the $1 million club, Zurzolo said, “The only comics that are worth more are higher-grade copies of Action Comics #1.”

Sandoval said that he had given the matter some thought in the week or so after his sale and concluded, “Only other copies of Action #1 or Detective Comics #27 or a really, really nice copy of Superman #1 would be a possibility to break into that club.

“I think Superman #1 will pass Marvel Comics #1 in the price guides soon.”

When asked what the Action Comics #1 would have brought, had it been CGC-graded at 9.4 (Near Mint) or better, Zurzolo said, “I couldn’t even venture to guess — probably in the multi-millions.”

With the Detective #27 being only one of two copies graded 8.0 by CGC — and no copies graded higher — Sandoval said he was hesitant to speculate on what a CGC-graded 9.4 (Near Mint) or higher copy might bring.

“This copy was initially graded a Very Fine before CGC put it at 8.0.

“There are comic books that get a nice grade but have a ‘blah’ appearance that counts against eye appeal — but that wasn’t the case with this copy and its sharp, bright yellow background.” ?

What are "Key Comics"?

So-called “key comics” are historically significant comics. That is to say, they contain such events as: the first appearance of a character; a major change in that character’s life; or a new concept, such as putting several heroes together as a team.

Scarcity and demand can also play into determining a key issue. While the horror, crime, and science-fiction comics produced by E.C. Comics in the early 1950s are highly sought after by many collectors, the real keys (in terms of scarcity) among all that publisher’s releases are the file copies stored away by owner William Gaines at the time and made available to the public in the 1980s.

Gaines’ file copies are also an example of another factor that can determine a key issue: a pedigree. Pedigrees are typically granted to collections that can be identified as belonging to a single collector, who amassed his collection by purchasing his comics from the newsstand, preserving those comics carefully, and retaining many key or rare comics in that original collection.

The most famous of such pedigrees is the Mile High Collection, amassed by Colorado commercial artist Edgar Church in the 1930s and 1940s and discovered by Chuck Rozanski in the 1970s when Church’s heirs were clearing the artist’s home. Other well-known pedigree collections include (but are not limited to) the Allentown Collection, the Larson Collection, and the Bethlehem Collection.

Since many super-heroes were introduced in the late 1930s and early 1940s, there are many key comics from that time. In addition to Action #1 and Detective #27, other keys of that era include Marvel Comics #1 (Nov 39, first Human Torch, first Sub-Mariner), Detective Comics #38 (Apr 40, first Robin), Superman #1 (Sum 39), Batman #1 (Apr 40), All-Star Comics #3 (Win 40, first teaming of heroes, in The Justice Society of America), All-Star Comics #8 (Jan 42, first Wonder Woman), and Captain America Comics #1 (Mar 41). ?

With first editions, buyers must beware

Action Comics #1 is historically significant because it contains the first appearance of Superman, written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster.

With Superman jump-starting the super-hero genre and what is known as The Golden Age of comics, the issue has been reprinted several times in the past 72 years, so collectors should be wary of copies presented as the original printing. This is especially true of an oversized reprint from the early 1970s that was one of DC’s Famous First Editions titles. That reprint was roughly the size of a Life magazine, and there have been several cases of buyers being told, “Comics back then were that much bigger than comics of today,” and informed that the reprint was the original. (Such sellers would remove the cardboard identifying outer cover, leaving what appeared to be a complete copy of Action #1, including the glossy cover and all the original ads.)

Action Comics was an anthology series, containing several stories featuring other characters, and The Man of Steel’s first outing was actually a late addition to the package. Long considered one of the “holy grails” of the collecting hobby, copies of the issue in collectible condition have been selling at gradually higher and higher prices over the years. These 2010 sales surpassed all previous sales by a wide margin. It is estimated that, of its 200,000 copy initial print run, around 100 copies still exist — and approximately half of those have been graded by CGC.

Just shy of a year after Superman’s introduction, Batman (written by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane) first appeared in Detective Comics #27, another anthology title — and the series whose initials gave DC its identity.

Initially an anthology of mystery stories, Detective quickly embraced super-heroes with The Caped Crusader’s adventures. The issue hasn’t been reprinted as often as Action #1, but there is an oversized early 1970s Famous First Edition out there, as well as a 1984 reprint. It’s estimated that 175,000 copies of this key issue were printed in 1939, with approximately 100 copies surviving and 50 being CGC-graded. ?

Brent Frankenhoff is editor of Comics Buyer’s Guide.


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