Cartoons were a tremendous part of my childhood, as they were for so many people. I was raised in the prime years of Saturday morning cartoons, the mid-1970s. Those endless weekend mornings, perched in front of the tube with a box of Cheerios and a gallon of milk, I was set for the cavalcade of Bugs Bunny and Hanna-Barbera that was a well-deserved reward for a week of school, homework and dodging the various perils of kid-dom.
The nostalgia I feel for those mornings, where names like Grape Ape, The Super Friends, Schoolhouse Rock and Hong Kong Phooey reside, is palpable. Great characters live with us, they become embedded in our collective consciousness and are guides along the way. So many of the lessons I learned in life came to me directly from cartoons: the laws of physics were mutable, how to deal with bullies, good usually triumphs over bad and you should never, ever cross Bugs Bunny.
This nostalgia, and these lessons, are nothing new to me and my Generation X cohorts. The love and influence of animation goes all the way back to the early 20th century and the inception of the art form. It took firm hold of American hearts and souls in the 1920s with the advent of Walt Disney’s revolutionary mouse and his groundbreaking Silly Symphonies. It continued in the 1940s with Warner Brothers cartoons and Merry Melodies. It soared through the 1950s and 1960s with cartoons from Jay Ward and Hanna-Barbera, who dominated the 1970s as well.
The 1980s saw the beginning of the end of traditional hand-animated cartoons as digital animation began its march toward dominance, but it was in the 1980s and 1990s that animation art itself would experience its first great boom as well as its first great crash.
When the kids who had grown up on The Wonderful World of Disney in the 1950s and 1960s realized they could actually buy and own the individual animation cels from the movies and cartoons they watched and loved so well as children, well, a market was born. Prices on the best Disney pieces soared.
In the mid-1990s the market, over-saturated, soured. Prices fell. Key master cels and master backgrounds used in the making of the great animated films of Disney, for instance, stopped bringing six-figure and high five-figure prices.
Twenty years later, animation is on the move again. Auction houses are posting sales with results that routinely surpass $1 million. Classic pieces of Disney art, with key names attached, are again bringing five-figure prices, sometimes flirting with $100,000 and above. Two generations have aged into collecting, nostalgia is strong and wallets are open. What’s more, as hunger for classic Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons heats back up, so, too, has the desire among Gen-X collectors for the cartoons of their childhoods. Super Friends and Schoolhouse Rock animation cels and related pieces routinely bring several thousand dollars when they show up. They are actively tracked and bid on by a whole new generation of collectors looking to capture exactly what the previous generations were: their childhoods.
For insight into today’s market, Warman’s turned to one of the leading dealers of animation today: Deborah Weiss, the owner of Wonderful World of Animation in Orange County, California.
Weiss needs no introduction to serious collectors; she has been in the business for decades, has dealt with some of the greatest pieces of animation art in existence and has an impeccable eye for good pieces. Collectors turn to her for pieces of all vintages, and for objective advice and fair deals on these pieces. A routine look around her website, www.WonderfulWorldofAnimation.com, confirms all of this. There is plenty to choose from across price points and generations.
Warman’s: Please give me a brief overview of the market for Animation Art right now. What’s hot? What’s not?
Deborah Weiss (DW): The animation market is very much on an upward swing right now and appears to be getting stronger all the time. A stronger economy, strong results in auction and the recently built museums are all adding to the momentum. We had our best month in our 20-plus years at the gallery recently and have sold a number of pieces in the $30,000-$100,000 range.
Strong classic Disney art is hot. Master set-ups and concept art from the classics – Gustav Tenggren, David Hall, Mary Blair, etc. – have been selling very well.
What’s not? The limited-edition market got over-supplied and many of those pieces now sell for a quarter of their original price.
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Warman’s: Where are the best buys right now? What genre, characters, etc.?
DW: I’ve always advised collectors to buy what they love. If it goes up in value, that’s an added bonus. The safest thing to do is to buy the best pieces you can afford. Cels of “classic” recognizable characters in their quintessential poses should always have the most general appeal: Cinderella in a ball gown, Lady and Tramp spaghetti scene, etc. Best buys, as far as contemporary cartoons go? The Simpsons. It’s a record-breaking show and each year more of its fans are growing up and able to afford the cels. For vintage Disney drawings, collectors can pick up lovely drawings from the 1930s-1950s in the $300-$1,000 range, very affordable.
Warman’s: What’s the appeal of animation art? Why should it be taken seriously as an art form?
DW: You own a one-of-a-kind piece used to make a film. My favorite thing is to pause the DVD, then look at my wall and think, “I own that! I actually own a piece of Snow White.” How fantastic is that? Hang a Simpsons cel in your house and probably every single person who sees it will know what it is. There’s serious skill needed to create characters that live in our collective consciousness and are loved the world over. The skill level, attention to detail and quality is on the level of many artists that are deemed more “serious.” Keep in mind, though, that pieces reside in the permanent collections of some of the world’s most famous museums now, including MoMA.
Warman’s: How has the market changed since the heyday of the 1980s and early 1990s?
DW: That era had a lot of things going on. It was the first time that animation art had reached a big audience and the Internet did not exist. Since then, what the market saw was prices on OK-ish art falling, like Pink Panther cels, while the very rare items, like Snow White master set-ups, are once again approaching, and in some cases exceeding, the levels of the early ’90s.
Nowadays, it’s much easier for collectors to find galleries, and the perception of availability and how rare something is can get skewed. There aren’t more Pinocchio pieces in existence than there were 25 years ago, but when one sees a few on a number of sites, the idea of how “rare” something is can change.
On the other hand, so many new collectors have come along – people who otherwise would’ve never known this type of art exists to collect – that we have collectors from all over the world finding us and purchasing, keeping prices competitive.
Warman’s: What should a collector look for when starting an animation art collection? What’s the best advice you could give them?
DW: This is an easy one. It’s the same [advice] I followed when I started collecting: Do some research, familiarize yourself with definitions and prices and collect what appeals to you – it’s your collection and you should buy what you like. Call a few galleries and ask them questions. Find galleries that you feel comfortable dealing with and you feel are trying to show you the pieces that best match your collecting goals.
Warman’s: Real, hand-drawn animation is a diminishing art in modern TV and film. Is there a future for animation collecting 50 or 100 years from now?
DW: Absolutely. It’s unfortunate that there is not art to collect from newer TV and films, but every generation has a place in its heart for the classics; they’ll continue to be sought after. The collector base grows each year as more and more people realize this type of art exists to collect.
Warman’s: What drew you to animation art? How did you end up in the business?
DW: When I was little, I collected comic books. Not only did I collect comic books, I dreamed of comic books and counted the days until the new Overstreet arrived. My first cel was a gift – an Archie cel – and after that I was completely head-over-heels hooked. I used to trade Latin American equities on Wall Street, and I really enjoyed my job, but I lived and breathed animation. How lucky was I that I could have a career doing what I love!