Owning a Piece of Your Childhood

After a lull, animation art -- the hand-painted images that were used to make cartoons in the days before digital -- are poised to take off

You wouldn't expect Donald "Buzz" Ackerman, a senior vice-president at Salomon Smith Barney, to be fooling around with kid stuff. But in his off hours, this no-nonsense exec is a passionate collector of animation art -- the drawings, watercolor paintings, and hand-painted celluloid images ("cels," in collector lingo) used to make classic cartoons. He loves owning a tiny piece of the cartoons he grew up watching as a child.

"The brokerage business is tough, especially these days," Ackerman says. "But every night, I go home and look at my collection for 10 or 15 minutes, and I enjoy every minute of it."

If you, too, loved cartoons as a kid, now is a good time to jump into collecting. The animation art market boomed in the 1980s and early 1990s, when big buyers such as film directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were bidding up prices, and coveted images of classic Walt Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse topped $200,000. But by the mid-1990s, prices had dropped by as much as 20%, and they haven't budged much since. Now, vintage work is increasingly hard to find, and prices are due for a resurgence, says Dana Hawkes, a Sotheby's senior vice-president. "If you have the money, now's the time to buy."

Animation art doesn't seem as if it would be rare. Animators made hundreds of sketches and watercolor background scenes for each cartoon and used dozens of hand-painted cels per second to capture each increment of a character's movements. But studios typically threw out or recycled old cels and drawings during the 1960s because they weren't considered valuable.

Some important pieces survived only because employees took them home. Noel Blanc, whose father Mel was the voice of Bugs Bunny and many other characters, remembers that in the '40s and '50s, his dad saved thousands of Warner Brothers cels -- but would give handfuls to any kid who knocked at the front door. Few are being produced these days. Digital imaging has replaced hand-painting, and Disney (whose cels are the crème de la crème to most collectors) now keeps original sketches and drawings from its features for its archives.

The market is tricky. Tons of animation art is available on eBay and through galleries at malls and Disney theme parks. But much of it is limited-edition reproductions created by the studios expressly for retail sale. The best of these are beautiful, hand-done scenes from classic cartoons that retail for up to $4,000 -- but it's unclear how valuable they'll become because they were created in editions of up to 500. Most serious collectors prefer the rarity and historical connection of vintage production images that were actually used to make a cartoon. "There's nothing like being able to freeze-frame a DVD down to the exact image you own," says Rob Jaiven, owner of Cuckoo Comics & Collectibles in Sunrise, Fla.

Ackerman and his wife, Sharon, began buying reproductions in the early 1990s and spent a couple of years studying the subject and questioning dealers before graduating to more expensive vintage cels. In the process, Buzz developed a rapport with experts at Sotheby's and top dealers such as Cuckoo Comics & Collectibles (cuckoocomics.com), Great American Ink in Los Angeles (greatamericanink.com), and Gifted Images Gallery on Long Island (800 726-6708). The couple has paid more than $30,000 for items such as a pair of tiny watercolors of Snow White by famed Disney artist Gustaf Tenggren, but they still comparison shop. "You can pay all sorts of prices for this stuff," says Buzz. He and his wife have spent "in excess of $500,000" for the 43 vintage pieces they own.

Costliest are vintage images from early Disney classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the first feature-length animated film, and Pinocchio (1940). Typically, major characters in familiar scenes are most prized -- full face, eyes wide open, is better than in profile or with eyes in mid-blink or closed. A cel of Snow White singing at the well might go for $3,000 to $5,000 with eyes shut and $5,000 to $7,000 with eyes open, says Hawkes of Sotheby's. The price shoots into the stratosphere ($20,000 and up) if the original background is included. While thousands of cels were created to capture each tiny character movement, the background stayed the same through whole sequences of action -- so background paintings are far rarer than cels.

If your budget is limited, cels of minor characters in Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons go for a few hundred dollars. Drawings and sketches done by animators at those studios generally sell for $500 to $3,000, says Great American Ink. The price rises if a famous artist is involved. Great American Ink has priced a four-panel storyboard of Bugs Bunny drawn by celebrated cartoonist Chuck Jones at $3,750.

Art from TV cartoons tends to be cheaper than work from animated features: Original cels from Hanna-Barbera's The Flintstones and The Jetsons go for as little as $250. Even with the original hand-painted background, they can be had for $4,000 or less. If you prefer contemporary cartoons, a few are produced the old-fashioned way. The Simpsons is done by hand (in Asia), and you can find cels of Bart and Homer for a few hundred dollars.

Veteran collectors say that buying an image you love -- and waiting until the right one comes along -- is the most important advice they can give. The Ackermans sometimes look for two or three years before finding the image they really want. "If we can't say 'wow,' we don't buy it," Buzz says. That's a good rule for any collector to follow.

By Thane Peterson

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