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Collecting Animation Art 101

Production cels, limited editions, sericels, lithographs ... confused? Steven Grossfeld explains all, while also offering valuable buyer tips.

Collecting animation art is one of the most exciting hobbies there is. Imagine displaying a piece of your childhood framed on your wall! Just about everyone can relate to cartoons. We all grew up with animation, and I don't know of anyone who wouldn't like to own a framed Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. In the following pages, I hope to give some insight into the world of animation art enthusiasts and what they collect. I'll begin by offering a brief overview of the types of animation art that collectors look for and where they go to build their collections.

A production cel and background from Chuck Jones' 1996 Looney Tunes short, Pullet Surprise. © 1996 Warner Bros.

The Grand Production Cel

The most popular form of animation art is the "production cel," in other words, a hand-painted animation cel that was actually filmed to create one frame of an animated scene that appeared in a cartoon. The overwhelming popularity of the production cel is most likely because collectors best identify with the final painted version of the character. Production cels can range from thousands of dollars each (for rare, early Disney cels) to only a couple of dollars each (for commercial cels and some Anime cels). Value is determined by a number of factors, including rarity, condition of the cel, pose of the character and in which cartoon the cel appeared.

Production cels are sold in theme parks, studio stores, galleries, major auction houses and a growing number of mail order catalog companies and online electronic catalogs. A novice collector, as well as the seasoned veteran, should examine artwork thoroughly before purchasing. One should expect no less than a money-back guarantee of authenticity and satisfaction from the seller. Auctions usually do not offer this, and I recommend only purchasing at auction when you are expert enough to determine value and authenticity on your own. Purchasing by credit card is always a good idea, as well. If there is any question of fraud, you can refuse to pay and your credit card company will back you, providing you can prove your claim.

Termite Terrace, a limited edition cel featuring Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies working in an animation studio. © 1997 Warner Bros.

Limited Edition Cels Aren't So Limited!

Limited edition cels are available through a growing number of galleries, theme parks and catalog sellers. Prices may vary as much as 30% to 50%, depending on where you shop. A limited edition cel is a hand-painted cel that was created for sale or as a premium of some sort. These cels can have hand-inked lines, Xerox "ink lines" or serigraphed "ink lines." The process used to get the outline of the characters on the cel before painting is up to the creator of the artwork. It is more costly to have a cel hand-inked, and therefore, these usually retail for more than Xerox or serigraph lined cels. With the number of animation art collectors rapidly growing, the studios are quick to increase the number of limited edition cels released each year. Prices for Limited Editions vary greatly. You can find a Hanna-Barbera limited edition cel selling for under $350 framed, and you can also find a Disney limited edition cel selling for $2,300 framed. Collecting limited edition cels is popular, and many collectors remain faithful to basically one studio in preference.

With the advent of computer animation and the absence of production cels from many of the new Disney features, the studio has found a new niche. There are no true production cels available from such films as Aladdin, Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King and Hunchback of Notre Dame because the films' cels or frames were all digitally inked and painted. Collectors' appetites were satisfied with special "auctions" put on by Disney in conjunction with Sotheby's. Special one-of-a-kind "limited edition cels" were created, taken directly from final animation drawings of the characters. These limited edition cels were then placed on their corresponding backgrounds, which were actually the production backgrounds used in the film, and offered up for sale. The auction results were astonishing; many of the final bid results reached triple the estimates offered in the catalogs. Such pieces were released only through these auctions and later were available on the secondary market, meaning that the original buyers were now attempting to resell the artwork, either on their own or through galleries. To further satisfy the Disney animation collectors, the studio released a number of limited edition cels as well as sericels.

That Means I Love You, a sericel recreated by original Hanna-Barbera designer Jerry Eisenberg, from a 1962 episode of The Jetsons,

Sericels: Are They Serious?

Sericels are silk-screened prints on clear plastic, or acetate, which appear to look just like a painted cel. These prints are made pretty much using the same process as silk-screened T-shirts. While T-shirts sell for about $20, sericels sell from $60 to a top price of $500 for a large, framed print of many characters. Sericels have very little value on the secondary market, and quite honestly many collectors are very upset when they find out how little of their original purchase price they can get if they are forced to sell one. I'm only mentioning this because of the hundreds of complaints that I see each month from collectors who feel cheated by those selling sericels at such incredible prices. If the manufacturing cost of a sericel is $3 to $5 at most, what should they sell for? You be the judge. Sericels can be purchased at studio stores, theme parks, many animation art galleries, frame shops, discount wholesale club stores, as well as through mail order and Internet catalogues and on television shopping channels.

Lithographs, A Newcomer

There are also a growing number of lithographs with animation themes that have become quite popular in recent years. Signed, limited edition lithographs have always been popular, but now they are very popular with animation art collectors. A lithograph is a fine art print resulting from a print process requiring a series of raised plates to place each of the colors on the paper. Plates are made from a variety of substances, including stone, metal and plastic. Such notable artists as Peter Max, Charles Fazzino and Melanie Taylor Kent have done releases licensed by the studios. In addition, Warner Bros. has released a number of limited edition lithos created in house by animation artists. These lithographs have sold well and are generally very popular with Warner Bros. animation fans. Lithographs are available through studio stores, theme parks, fine art galleries and animation galleries.

The Art Behind the Final Cel

Animation layouts and production backgrounds are also popular with savvy collectors. While not as popular as cel art, these production pieces are rare and difficult to obtain. The rare find of an original layout from a 1930's Disney cartoon could fetch several thousand dollars in the marketplace. A layout is generally a scene that shows both character and scenery. Although there are background layouts as well as character layouts, the combination of both on the final layout is preferred by many. These can be found at a small number of galleries devoted to specializing in vintage (i.e. pre-1964 at Warner Bros. and pre-1975 at Disney) original animation art.

gospeed.gifGo, Speed Racer, Go! a fine art lithograph signed by Ippei Kuri, the director and animator of the original series. Speed Racer is and © Speed Racer Enterprises, Inc. You can buy this piece of art in the Animation World Store.

Storyboards are the visual script of a cartoon, and my favorite form of animation art. I highly recommend at least one storyboard in every animation art collector's portfolio. Storyboards are so diverse in size, materials and coloration that pinning a specific definition on them is difficult. There are storyboard sheets featuring as many as nine "thumbnail" drawings, along with accompanying text under each frame. There are also storyboards that are one scene drawn on a sheet of paper or board. Each studio has their own special style of storyboard art and each is just as entertaining. These can be found at galleries specializing in original animation art, animation auctions, and on occasion, studio stores in very limited quantities.

Fans also revel in collecting animation drawings. This is a pretty loose category that encompasses animator's rough drawings, which are sketchy in style, animation clean-up drawings, which are the final clean lined drawings used to make the cels, key and inbetween animation drawings, which can fall into either one of the previous categories. These drawings are most often more affordable to beginning collectors with limited incomes, and are preferred by collectors who currently work in the business. These can be found at galleries specializing in original animation art as well as at auctions.

Other Collectibles

There are many other forms of animation art which are collected today. For example, there are maquette models, used by animators to aid in keeping perspective when drawing the characters. These are found generally at auctions. There are also inspirational paintings and drawings used to help set the mood of scenes early in the production process, which are found at auctions and several specialty animation galleries. In addition, there are movie posters, lobby cards and publicity stills, which were printed to help publicize the cartoons when they appeared. These can usually be found at a small number of galleries and memorabilia shows.

Animation art as a collectible has come quite a long way since the 1984 Basmajian auction was held at Christie's East in New York. That was a milestone that placed this art form in the public eye, and we owe quite a bit to Christie's and Sotheby's for supporting our frenzy. As a collector, I must also thank Disney, Warner Bros., MGM and the rest for creating animation and not destroying all of the art after the cartoons were filmed. Special thanks goes to Courviossier Galleries and later to the Rudman's of Gallery Lainzberg, who had the foresight to sell animation art to the public.

Steven Grossfeld has been collecting animation art for 22 years. He is President of C.A. Animation (www.thegremlin.com), founder and moderator of CELMAIL (www.thegremlin.com/CELMAILhome.html), the weekly e-mail newsletter of animation art fans, and is a long-time member of ASIFA International. His articles have been published in In Toon! Magazine, The Inside Collector, Storyboard - The Art of Laughter, and in CELMAIL. Some of Steven's interviews have aired on CNN, Fox News and News 12 - Long Island (New York). He resides in Great Neck, New York with his wife Debbi, and is the father of four children.

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