The hard cel – collecting original animation artwork

A personal view of collecting original animation artwork from Stewart Selkirk.

Collecting things, from cigarette cards to fine art paintings, can be both a strange and enjoyable business. Strange when one sees the inflated amounts that can be paid by some individuals at auction for a penny black or a signed Picasso sketch. Enjoyable when we mere mortals can acquire something that means more to us than its monetary value, something that gives tangible pleasure, not something to be locked away in some speculators vacuum sealed bank vault to be resold later for pure financial gain.

For me, an interest in collecting and later, selling original animation art began with the magical appeal of the early Walt Disney features. It was, however, during a visit to London in 1976 that I saw a Christmas display of original cels from The Rescuers, in Liberty’s, and was impressed by the fact that such things were available. After a lot of writing around and questioning I discovered other galleries that sold animation artwork and bought two items, a four eel set up from The Rescuers and one from Pete’s Dragon. When framed, they graced one of my walls for several years and were exhibited as a part of my collection in London recently.

The Aberbach gallery in London dealt in original Disney animation art, prices were high and it closed several years ago, a victim of the recession. The gallery could not provide anything earlier than The Jungle Book. This left me with the task of turning to the USA to discover if I could, for instance, get a cel of Captain Hook, or one of Tramp, or an animator’s drawing of Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck.

From 1981 onwards I made contacts, usually with enthusiasts and the animators themselves. I visited the USA and collected all of the aforementioned and more. The galleries had crazy prices, selling items that had originally been sold at Disneyland in the 50’s for $5 to $10, in a fancy frame for $500 to $750. This bothered me, why should a Goofy cel, as unique as it was, be so beyond the reach of the enthusiasts who did not have money to burn, when there were hundreds of thousands, in fact, millions of cels, drawings, and storyboard drawings around somewhere?

I discovered that the claims made by American galleries, that most Disney cels were destroyed after use, were pure fiction intended to inaccurately demonstrate ‘rarity’ and ‘uniqueness’ and thereby inflate prices.

Here are the facts for any person with an interest in acquiring a piece of original animation artwork or beginning a collection.

Firstly, Disney is the most collectable, but others have become more popular in the last couple of years, examples being, the Chuck Jones and Warner Bros. characters, M.G.M. Tom and Jerry, Barney Bear, etc. and some of the television shows, such as the hand-inked cels of the 60’s Hanna-Barbera series The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear and so on.

Secondly, the more popular characters tend to be the most expensive. Everyone seems to want the large, hand-inked Mickey Mouse cel, and because of this, one has to pay through the proverbial nose for such a piece. However, quality of pose and size of image plays a big part at this point. If the character is quite small, has his or her eyes closed, is in an unusual posture, is only a partial character, (e.g. Tinkerbell without wings, which would have been on a separate layer) the price is considerably lower.

Thirdly, to ensure that the cel or drawing is authentic there are a number of things to look for. The quality of the image and how the lines of ink on cel or pencil on paper are rendered. If possible, examine the back of the painted area of a cel, Disney used a special paint which has changed over the years, but which settles to a very smooth finish, you should not see brush strokes. A reasonably old Disney animation drawing will be, to some degree, yellowed like old newspapers and will have the watermark ‘Management Bond – a Hammermill product’. Cels from all studios will often have seals of authenticity upon them, but this was not done prior to the 60’s. Before that the galleries would guarantee the genuineness of the drawings and paintings themselves. Another point, beware of ‘limited edition’ eels and those made for publicity purposes, although genuine, they have not been used in film production.

Fourthly, animator’s drawings tend to be rarer than cels, in Disney’s case they have kept most of them in the Archives as a reference for younger animators. However, over the years, all kinds of artwork, including complete scenes have been begged, borrowed, stolen, auctioned for charity, sold through galleries and dealers, comic book stores and so on, generally escaping on to the open market. Backgrounds with cels are rare as is anything with Walt Disney’s personal signature.

Present prices can be determined from these examples from my own sales list which is available to anyone who is interested:

1. Donald Duck – animator’s drawing from Modern Inventions 1937 very large waist up image. £85.00.
2. Mickey Mouse – animator’s drawing from The Little Whirlwind 1941 – medium size foreshortened pose with Mickey in a straw hat. £85.00.
3. Bernard & Bianca – from The Rescuers 1976 – four cel set-up in a leaf boat. £100.00.
4. Tom and Spike the bulldog – cel large beautifully inked image from the 1940’s. £120.00.
5. Tramp – cel from Lady and the Tramp 1955 – small full figure walking, great expression. £150.00.
6. Mowgli – cel from The Jungle Book 1966 – large full figure, good expression. £125.00

Generally speaking, a good quality drawing can range from around £60 and a cel from around £75 dependant on character, pose, studio, age, popularity, condition and availability.

It is reported that people like Paul McCartney and Elton John are keen collectors of animation artwork and certainly in recent times there have been eels and other items realising huge sums of money at auction such as places like Sotheby’s. However, as the only existing dealer in the U.K. for this material, I could not personally afford such sums which are representative of the worst aspects of speculation, greed, and capitalistic manipulation. I believe that ordinary people should be able to afford to buy a cel from a favourite scene or a favourite character knowing that it is unique, constituting one part which helped make up that film.

Collecting is a useless, unprofitable pastime if it is something which denies the elements of sharing and appreciation of quality. Animation artwork is something which functions primarily beneath the camera, but, as many people have found, the skill and care with which each frame of an animated film is produced is something worth preserving, taking pleasure from and displaying for others. Perhaps more so than coins, antiques, and suchlike, it is something accessible, something which communicates universally as a reminder of the feelings associated with the moving images themselves.

In conclusion, I have not found a great demand in the U.K. for animation artwork, but this is partly due to prohibitive prices. Who could resist a Pinocchio cel on its original back. ground to hang on their wall? By the same token, who could afford £1,500? All of my own collection and anything that I sell comes directly from the USA. I am able to sell at reasonable prices because I am not like the Lainzberg gallery, mentioned in the last issue of Animator, who claim that Warner burned their old cels and Disney had a dump where they regularly discarded their cels, and offer limited edition cels for as much as $225. Such prices are prohibitive to the real enthusiast and I think it is immoral to misrepresent the facts and to sell for as much profit as possible.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that with the rapid expansion of modern technology in the animation industry, it may not be long before we see the disappearance of eels and drawings on paper. Who knows? The collectors of today may in fact be acquiring things with considerable historical significance for the communications media.

Printed in Animator Issue 16 (Summer 1986)