An unlimited seller’s market for limited-edition cel art

The resurgence of interest in cartoon characters is by no means limited to consumer merchandise such as T-shirts, coffee mugs and jewelry. For many years, the trend has included the collection of limited-edition animation art. This baby boom in the animation art market started about 25 year ago, when a small group of pioneers began promoting animation art to a then-limited audience of enthusiasts. Like many movements in the art world, the trend began small, but has since evolved into a modern-day renaissance for such works.

In the summer of 1973, Vince Jefferds, an art collector and VP of Disney’s character merchandising division, approached Bernard Dannenberg, a Madison Avenue proprietor of fine art who once promoted the works of Norman Rockwell, to exhibit and sell animation cels from Disney’s feature film “Robin Hood,” released in November 1973. Wayne Morris, then an employee in the Disney character merchandising art department, remembers, “The pieces sold were offered at $75 a piece, which was a huge leap because prior to that, they had been sold in the Disneyland Emporium for about three bucks apiece.”

Shortly afterward, Jefferds convinced Jack Solomon, chairman and CEO of Circle Fine Art Corp., to include a permanent section for animation alongside the fine art displayed in his galleries. Circle galleries across the nation gave Disney animation art a steady presence in the fine art arena. Circle’s involvement eventually grew to include other prominent animation names and generated millions of dollars in retail sales.

Meanwhile, independent of the developments at Circle Fine Art, Edith and Burt Rudman began selling a collection of vintage animation art in 1975. Shortly thereafter, they founded Gallery Lainzberg in Iowa. Soon, the Rudmans were guiding animation art via car caravans to college campuses and into the hands of collectors across America’s heartland. “From the beginning, there was intense interest … people loved the artwork,” Burt Rudman recalls.

Repeated success from such university sales, along with publicity generated from a Playboy article about their company, eventually took the Rudmans off the road and into the first large-scale catalog and mail-order business devoted exclusively to selling animation art.

A popular part of the Rudman’s 1977 catalog included production cels from Chuck Jones Enterprises’ television specials. Further interest led the famed animator to design two of the earliest signed limited editions depicting the Looney Tunes characters. One, called “The Duck Dodgers Group,” sold through a New York comic shop, while another re-created a Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog cover, featuring the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.

“Then I started the process to get a licensing contract to sell cels based on Chuck’s drawings of the Warner Bros. characters,” explains Chuck’s daughter, Linda Jones Clough, CEO of Linda Jones Enterprises. Chuck Jones’ reinterpretations of Warner cartoons and their subsequent success encouraged Linda to expand her business, which later included the first publication of Warner characters drawn by Friz Freleng and Bob McKinson.

The demand for animation art by the late 1970s gave birth to a growing market for production cels, as well as limited editions based on production art no longer available from major studios. This increase in popularity was further demonstrated on Dec. 8, 1984, when New York’s Christie’s East held the first auction dedicated solely to the sale of animation art, from the collection of former Disney employee John Basmajian. Record prices at this auction brought wide media coverage, lured forgotten treasures out of mothballs and spurred an increasing number of independent galleries.

A string of classic animation newly released via video, books and feature films further fueled the art infatuation. The momentum reached a high point on June 28, 1989, when new collectors entered the market and paid substantial prices for art from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” at Sotheby’s in New York. “A lot of things were tripling and doubling the estimates,” recalls Dana Hawkes, director of Sotheby’s collectibles department. The auction received huge publicity and started a new auction market for contemporary animation art.

The impact of “Roger Rabbit’s” sudden popularity stimulated growth in all aspects of the animation art business. Hugely successful films followed and animation art and its related merchandising flourished.

“It is the relationship the collector has with the film,” explains Howard Lowery, owner of Howard Lowery Gallery in Burbank. “The success of the film dictates the demand for the artwork.” Character licensing based on the strength of these films sold wildly and peaked with Disney’s 1994 hit “The Lion King.”

This affection for cartoons eventually helped launch animation art from a cottage industry into the world of big-time merchandising via studio stores, which now routinely offer a wide variety of collectibles and other products alongside the artwork. Today, the industry is a global one, with retail stores, collector clubs and galleries all specializing in the secondary market and vying for collector dollars.

When asked about the future of animation art, architects from its past and present expect a market of some type will always remain, but possibly as part of a larger picture. David Barenholtz, who was VP of Hanna-Barbera’s animation art division from early 1995 until late last year, points out, “Of all the entertainment fields, animation was the first to take off. But what you have seen recently is a huge increase in the popularity of sports memorabilia, followed by a huge increase in the popularity of movie and rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia. They’re all collecting this type of Americana —entertainment-related memorabilia —and animation is going to fit into a segment of that.”

“It is a more competitive time,” adds Ruth Clampett, creative design director for Warner Bros. Studio Stores. “But it is also a more exciting time. I think collectors are more educated than they have ever been. So you always have to be in tune with who your collectors are, and be respectful of their passion and their knowledge for these characters and the cartoons.”

“I do feel enthusiastic about the animation art market,” says Linda Jones Clough. “We will either go to the responsible and bright future for animation art, if studio executives are responsible with their licenses, or we may go into the world of flooding the market and devaluing the art. I believe people who love animation love to have a piece of it in their home.”

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