Is There a Market for Animation Art?

"Cheshire Cat" production cel from Alice in Wonderland, Walt Disney, 1951. Sold for $4,200 via Profiles in History (June 2017).

For many collecting categories, spending power in the art market has fallen into the hands of nostalgia-driven, younger buyers over the last decade. Interest in animation art among Generation X and Millennials has, in turn, has led to a rise in collectors of the category. In a 2016 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mike Van Eaton, owner of Van Eaton Galleries said that the gallery has “seen a 20% increase every year” in both buyers and purchase prices. 

Whether it’s bringing to life comic heroes from the formative years of young adults or demand driven by the international anime film phenomenon, the discipline of animation, cartoons, and comic-inspired films are no longer seen as the reserve of children, and are ever more popular in today’s mainstream entertainment. “There is always a great demand and interest at auction for animation art,” says Alastair McCrea, Entertainment and Memorabilia Specialist at Ewbank’s. “The art was an important element of production and imperative in the design. Animation art can often fetch well into the thousands at auction especially for key early pieces.”

Underscoring this trend, CaixaForum, Madrid’s leading art center, organized an exhibition of original Disney animation art, a show that blurs the line between popular culture and high art. It has been argued that the enduring popularity of the Disney entertainment empire can be attributed to the strategic remastering and re-releasing of old classics on a regular basis, keeping stalwart Disney classics fresh in the minds of generation after generation. In 2016, the resurfacing of a long-lost collaboration between Walt Disney and Salvador Dali, called “Destino,” also helped to reposition Disney productions — and its associated art and memorabilia — in the minds of art fans.

Collecting Animation Art Today

Unlike more traditional media, animation art is fertile ground for collectors, thanks to the volume of output that was historically required in order to complete an animated film from concept to public release. These original works range from concept sketches and mood paintings to posters and memorabilia used to promote the launch of the film. This means that, while highly sought-after unique and rare items still reflect this status in their price tag, emerging collectors can still get their hands on original work that carries personal resonance.

“Cinderella” concept drawing by Mary Blair, 1950. Together sold with one other concept drawing for $7,680 via Julien’s Auctions (April 2014).

As with other memorabilia such as posters, the value of animation art reflects a variety of factors, which include:

  1. Popularity of the content or subject matter;
  2. Age;
  3. Rareness; and
  4. Condition of the item.

For fans of animation art looking to branch out into collecting, below are key areas to consider.

1. Original Concepts

Original concepts in animation art typically come in the form of works on paper, and can vary dramatically. Typically, they are a quick sketch of an idea, but they can also be full-color paintings designed to conjure a mood or an atmosphere.

Art Babbitt concept drawing from “The Silly Symphonies” theatrical short The China Shop. One of two drawings sold jointly for $3,200 via Profiles in History (June 2016).

2. Production Cel

The production cel (also known as a celluloid or cellulo) is an artwork drawn and painted directly onto transparent celluloid, which was then photographed and the photograph placed onto film. Although many have been trimmed to fit neatly into a frame, keep an eye out for peg holes along the bottom of a cell, which would have been used to keep the celluloid in place as the illustrator worked.

Original production cel for “My Neighbor Totoro” by Hayao Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli. Sold for €1,551 via Artcurial (March 2012).

Cellulose sheets were historically made from cellulose nitrate before 1940, which was later found to be highly flammable as it deteriorated, and consequently was replaced by cellulose acetate from around 1940 onwards. Each production house would keep their precise paint composition an industry secret, but these are often thought to be a variation on a water-soluble gouache along with a “plasticizer,” such as glucose, which would have added a smoothness and flexibility to the paint, and glycerin to facilitate application of the paint and reduce the probability of the paint caking. Sericels differ slightly as they are screenprints of cels on acetate, rather than an original celluloid.

Approximately 25 cels would have been required to produce a single second of footage, so feature-length films provide ample opportunity for collectors. However, since Walt Disney believed that cels were an offcut, rather than art of any value, many early Disney cels were destroyed.

Disney stopped using cels in 1990 in favor of digital animation, which is both more cost effective and reduced unnecessary waste. The producers of The Simpsons, an American animated comedy, however, didn’t go digital until 2003. The limited production of cels today has made a significant contribution to the rise in popularity of the production cel among collectors.

A 20th Century Fox celluloid of a couch gag from the television show “The Simpsons: Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington.” Sold for $1,020 via Bonhams (December 2008).

For collectors unsure of where to start, a Simpsons original production cel is in high demand because 20th Century Fox regulates the cels that it releases to market. 

3. Posters

The value of animation posters is reflective of the poster market as a whole: generally speaking, the design will come second to their content. Animation art posters from before the 1960s, when modern mass production printing methods were introduced, tend to be the highest in value. Posters from the longest-established production houses are by consequence, the most valuable.

Warner Bros., Looney Tunes stock one-sheet poster, 1940. Sold for $875 via Bonhams (March 2015).

There are no obvious examples of collectible posters from the likes of Studio Ghibli, which was established in 1985, or The Simpsons, which was first broadcast in 1989, as these would have been mass-produced and of a lower quality. However, as poster expert Roger Crimlis suggests, the very fact that these mass-produced items are not considered worthy of saving may mean that the few that remain are likely to become the collectors’ items of years to come.

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