Deborah Reber recently sat down with Christie's Animation Art Consultant Pierre Lambert. Over a fabulous French meal, Pierre discusses determining the market value for exceptional animation art pieces.
Animator, writer, collector and artist, Pierre Lambert has a true love and respect for animation, and is considered one of the most important animation experts in the world. He is responsible for assessing artwork and valuing pieces for animation auctions at Christie's in New York, London and Los Angeles. I recently had dinner with Pierre at Lespinasse, an elegant French restaurant located in New York City's St. Regis Hotel, while Pierre was visiting from his native France. Over rich, delicious food (Pierre knows the chef well, and we were treated to a flurry of courses), we talked about the market for the animation auctions on which he consults. Our conversation went a little something like this... Pierre Lambert: I know the main collectors of animation art very well. Many are friends. I visit all the big collections in America, in France, in Germany. I know what artwork exists. It's very important to know what exists to give a true estimation for an animation auction. Because if you find a piece, and it is the only one that exists in the world, of course, it will be very expensive. If there are tons and tons and tons, the value will be much lower. My job is to give estimations, and to give information about the artwork - if it is true artwork, the background, the care of the artwork, if it was restored, if it's a key set-up, an exact image of the movie, an exact frame... Deborah Reber: Who makes up the animation market? Who are the people buying the art at the auctions? PL: The market began at Christie's. The first auction was an auction of only Disney animation. It was the collection of a publicity artist who worked at the Disney studios in the early 1940s. This man understood that animation art would be very valuable in the future as "art," and asked Disney if he could take some artwork from the studios. He had the most important collection in the world - art from Pinocchio, Snow White, and Mickey Mouse films. He sold part of his collection in 1984, and it marked the beginning of the market. Some of the Mickey Mouse and Pinocchio artwork went for $20,000 in 1984. Before then there were some galleries that had a few drawings, and only a few collectors in America, but the market began mainly with this first sale. DR: Did that auction set a precedent for future animation auctions? PL: Well, the market began very strong because the collection was so exceptional. At first, the other auctions weren't so good because they didn't find many wonderful pieces. But year after year, Christie's and Sotheby's sold nice artwork, but piece-by-piece. But the market grew. Today the world record for a piece of animation art is U.S. $260,000, for a black and white Mickey Mouse, an early Mickey, and U.S. $220,000 for a very nice Snow White key set-up of the final sequence. DR: That's the overall record or the Christie's record?
PL: Overall. (pauses) So you have two markets. You have the crazy collectors who have a lot of money, who can spend a lot of money, like Steven Spielberg. At the end of the 1980's, there were a few collectors who could spend thousands and thousands of dollars. And then you have the regular market, which begins at one or two thousand dollars, and goes to $20,000 dollars. In this range, you have between 500 and 4,000 collectors.
PL: Yes, but a lot are American collectors, though there are very important collectors today in Europe, in Japan. For each auction, seventy percent of the art is leaving America. Of the ten best pieces, six or seven go out of America. The people who are looking to buy very expensive animation artwork like art itself, you know, impressionist paintings, and so on. There are some great artists who worked for Disney - great background artists, great animators. Today, some artwork is sixty years old. It is part of American history.
DR: Could you describe to me an "average" collector?
PL: It's very simple. The collector is a child who never grew up. They remember their first movie. If you are very old it is Snow White, if you are very young it is The Lion King, and in between the two best movies, you have twenty-five other movies. So for some people it is Fantasia, for others it is Pinocchio, Bambi ... it depends on when you were born. Some of the collectors are looking only to collect Mickey Mouse. One of the most important collectors in the world collects only Snow White. He has a few other things, Pinocchio drawings, because they're very nice, but he is the top Snow White collector in the world. Another collector collects only Mickey Mouse. Then you have some collectors who are looking only for Warner Bros. or for Tex Avery, MGM. But the very strong market is for Disney artwork. Our waiter interrupts the conversation at this point, presenting us with a delectable entree (I didn't ask questions...I just ate). After a few bites, Pierre continues his train of thought...
PL: I forgot to tell you that before the auctions, they had art galleries at Disney World and Disneyland in the 1950s. They sold the production cels from the movies - Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, etc. They were very cheap, U.S. $5.00 to buy a production cel. They sold thousands and thousands and thousands ... hundreds of thousands of cels. Many people in America had the cels in their children's rooms and they came back to the animation art gallery at the park and they bought many more cels. That was the beginning of the market before the auctions, because you can't create a market if the first piece is $1,000. Many of the collectors didn't have money when they were 20 years old. They didn't have money at 30 years old. But they have a lot of money at 40 years old. I think that the main reason for the success of this market is that at the beginning, it was easy to buy animation cels.
DR: Where does the original artwork come from for each auction?
PL: Much of the artwork comes in from people who worked for Disney. Someone in their family will find an old cel in the corner of the house, in the cellar, because their father, their grandfather, worked for Disney. For the most part it's the people who worked for Disney, who took the artwork from the studio, like a souvenir. Disney also sold artwork at the end of the 1930s. They sold to a few galleries, including Couvoisier Gallery [the official Disney gallery], but most of the artwork comes from people who worked for Disney.
DR: So, for every animation auction, Christie's hopes to get enough people coming to them with cels that they've found...
PL: Oh yes, of course. Every time it is difficult, because it is two months before the auction and you don't know if you have enough art. And the best pieces are coming from people who find one piece. You know, I have a story. I don't know what the connection was with Disney, if his brother worked for Disney or what, but an 84-year-old man found black & white set-ups of Mickey Mouse. I think that the total he made [from the auction] was U.S. 1 million dollars. It changed the end of his life, you know.
DR: That would change anyone's life!
PL: (laughs) Definitely...
DR: How do you go about placing a value on a piece of artwork?
PL: It depends on the piece. The main thing is if it's vintage or not. A key Snow White piece to give an example... You take a set-up of Snow White, if it's a key set-up and an exact frame of the movie - of course, the best set-up is Snow White with the Seven Dwarfs, sinc very few exist - is very expensive. One was sold at Sotheby's for $220,000 dollars. It was Snow White, the Prince, all the animals, and all the dwarfs. It was an original background. It was hanging in a hospital, and the hospital sold it to Sotheby's for $200,000 dollars. The character in the cel is very important. The quality of the background, and the quality of the set-up is very important too, because it's art. If it is beautiful it will, of course, be more valuable. All the most valuable pieces of animation art are beautiful. They need to be key. They need to be absolutely exact. They need to be in perfect condition.
DR: If you have a cel that is all of those optimal things, in perfect condition, with the original background and all the right characters, then how do you go about determining the value?
PL: Well, the value depends on how many pieces exist in the world, and what is the interest of all the collectors. I'm very good in this situation because I know the collectors, and I know what they are looking for. I know that this one's looking for Snow White and so on. Elyse [Luray-Marx, Christie's Animation Art Specialist] knows the collectors very well too. Together, we know if the piece will be of interest to these people, only one collector, maybe two, or more and at which level. Again, I like doing that because the game is to find the true price. I give a very true estimation. I know the market very well but sometimes I need to check if the piece is key in the movie. It is very important to be serious because it's a very serious market.
DR: You were saying how you value a piece of artwork, that you know which collectors are after what pieces. Is it that small of a group of people?
PL: I said that for the big pieces, but for the regular market, we have the other auctions to go by. We know that a Sleeping Beauty animation cel will sell for U.S. $2,000 or $3,000. If one is better it will be $3,500 to $4,000. If it's less, it will be $2,000 or $1,000. The thing in question is the quality of the art, and you need to be logical. You need to be mature. Sometimes I see artwork that I hate, but I say it is $2,000 dollars because the market is the market. I am like a technician. But the pleasure is to have a wonderful piece from Pinocchio, or from Snow White. The biggest pleasure, when I am working for Christie's, is to put the best piece of artwork on the wall and to work with it in the background because I know I can never have the piece.
DR: At least you get to admire it for a few days.
PL: For a few days, yes.
DR: If a cel doesn't have an original background, how much will that decrease the value?
PL: Without the original production background, it could go for between U.S. $1,000 and $20,000. Maybe a black & white Mickey cel alone could be $40,000. It is the maximum. But the cel itself, I would not say it is artistic. Everybody can brush [paint]. To ink is difficult, but to brush [paint] is very easy. They sell something at The Disney Store, "Paint a Cel," and it has small paints, a brush and cels with just the ink on celluloid. You can paint your own cel of Little Mermaid or Winnie the Pooh so, it's not difficult to paint a cel.
DR: It's really the background that makes the animation worth something...
PL: Yes, the backgrounds and the drawings. The drawings are not very expensive. The drawings are between U.S. $500 and $5,000. At $5,000 you have the best animation drawing from Pinocchio, from Snow White, from Mickey Mouse. I think the best way to collect today is to collect animation drawings, because it's less expensive and it's more beautiful. Of course, that's my opinion. I like backgrounds and drawings and conceptual artworks.
DR: Of those people who buy the artwork, how often are they planning to re-sell it, and if they do re-sell it, do they expect to make a profit?
PL: There are very few collectors who are looking to make an investment and sell it five years later. All of the main collectors like animation and they don't have the idea to sell the artwork later. If they will sell the artwork later it is to buy better artwork, because they find something better for their collection. Then sometimes they will sell the piece again. For example, a rich collector of Chip and Dale cels began to collect at Christie's and he bought everything. Today he decides to sell everything to Sotheby's and he sold everything very well. He didn't make money, but he got his money back, and he bought new artwork. Of course, you have galleries that are looking to make profits, but that's maybe twenty percent of the market. Eighty percent is made up of people who like animation. For an auction, maybe ten to fifteen percent will be artwork that you've seen before. Ten to fifteen percent, not more. It is not a lot, and never the biggest pieces; all the masterpieces, all the most beautiful set-ups, backgrounds, never come back.
PL: Never. Probably because they are so expensive and the people that bought the piece have so much money that they will never need to sell it. I know where the pieces are but they will never come back.
DR: In your book, what would be the most valuable cel?
PL: A black and white key set-up of Mickey, an early cel from 1931, 1932. And of course, this cel with the background is very, very rare. A black and white Mickey set-up is up over U.S. $100,000 every time. Every time.
Editor's Note: In a future issue we will review Pierre Lambert's impressive book Pinocchio. Previously released in French, the book is now being released in an English language form. This museum-quality book of text with rarely seen images, collected from the Disney Animation Research Library, the Disney Archives and private sources, is a detailed study of the classic Disney film.
Deborah Reber has been an Animation Development Consultant with UNICEF for the past three years, and currently oversees the Cartoons for Children's Rights campaign, as well as other animation advocacy activities.