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Has the Boom Gone Bust?: The Animation Art Market

Four respected gallery owners discuss the current status of the animation art market, including what is hot and what is not.

The general health of the animation art business appears, to the untrained eye, to be very poor. Animation art was on the tip of everyone's lips in the late `80s. Every home on the block was buying a cel to decorate a child's room, office or to stash in a closet because "collectibles are good investments." Well, one doesn't hear so much about animation art these days, and most folks are feeling a little sheepish about those "investments." Trips to most galleries reveal endless rows of highly priced limited editions, sericels and pieces that "appear" to have been used in blockbuster films but really weren't. Were we all dooped? Is animation art a fraud? Has the boom gone to bust? Or is the market just changing? We asked several art gallery owners and dealers their thoughts on the health of the market and what was and wasn't selling in their stores. The answers are, and aren't, surprising.

Steven Grossfeld

Director of Gremlin Animation/Moderator of CELMAILManchester, Vermont, U.S.A.

The industry is strong for original artwork that sells for under $2000. However, studio released artwork, the artwork that is distributed through studio programs, has diluted the market and is not selling nearly as well as artwork controlled by supply and demand. Limited editions have saturated the market to a point where even the secondary market has taken a hit. People are selling pieces at a loss just to get rid of them. The two largest distributors, Disney and Warner Bros. which now includes Hanna-Barbera, come out with other limited editions almost identical to some of those previously sold out. They will release several limited editions by changing the character images only a little. There are only so many Bambi cels for instance that the collectors can absorb. Also, they are overpriced. Limited edition artwork should not sell for more than original artwork does.

Other collectibles are also very strong in well visited tourist markets; where people are on vacation with disposable money. There is a very small secondary market on these items now but somewhere down the road, they will be worth a lot of money. The Disney collectibles from the '30s and '40s are worth a fortune now if you go to any one of the Disneyana events, the prices realized will bear me out.

There are also thousands of new anime collectors. This is a tremendous market and really shows how the Internet's role in the animation art business has grown. There are only a few places on the Internet which sell these cels, videos, etc.; and the fans and collectors frequent them, and do almost all of their business there.

Mike Van Eaton

Owner of Van Eaton GalleriesSherman Oaks, California, U.S.A.

Overall, the market for us is excellent. As a gallery, we have found that we need to concentrate in specific areas of the market. We do quite well with original, vintage production art and pre-production artwork, like storyboards, concepts and original drawings. There also seems to be an up swing on the auction front again. There was a drop a few years ago but now, I'm starting to see prices increase again. What makes original art so viable is that it offers the animation collector choices. Thus, making our gallery unique for the animation collector.

The Internet is also playing a very vital role in collecting anything in general, especially animation art. Keep in mind though, the Internet does have pros and cons. On one hand it has made us accessible to hundreds of thousands of people, something we could have never achieved with conventional ways of advertising. Plus, it has allowed us to put literally hundreds of unique pieces of artwork for sale on our website, which is doing extremely well.

The down side to the Internet is that it has made it difficult for the local gallery in a couple of ways. Your collector can now buy whatever they want on the `Net. If you are an authorized studio dealer such as Warner Bros. or Disney, you pretty much carry the same items, such as limited editions, as everyone else. This particular market is weak because the studios have flooded it. It makes it very hard for the "studio supported" gallery to compete, which can lead to a whole separate set of issues that now plague the art market. Galleries which sell a wide range of production cels and special art are doing well. The galleries that are hurting are those that are selling solely limited editions.

Collectibles are still very strong. However, we are seeing the same thing happen to three-dimensional art that has happened to the limited edition market. It's getting flooded, and we are seeing the same reaction from people. They all say, "I can't possibly collect all this!" Not only is there too much of it in quantity, it can also be price prohibitive. The 3D sculptures being created for the mass market are not seeing their ideal potential because the studio's are just making too much of it.

True vintage Disneyana and items from the amusement parks are doing well. We also see interest in the more eclectic items, such as animated TV commercial art. They are inexpensive and if you've grown up in the last thirty years, you are just as familiar with the Trix Rabbit as Mickey Mouse, just as familiar with Captain Crunch as Pinocchio. Charlie Tuna is another popular item. What amazes me is some of the prices these items fetch in online auctions. Once I saw a Frankenberry, Count Chocula cel go for close to $600.00! Now that does not mean that they are all worth that price. It just means that someone was willing to pay that much money for one. Pretty ridiculous if I do say so.

I personally like the '70s art. At times, it has been more advantageous to sell commercial art over vintage classic Disney art. The business is steady on this medium. I also like the fact that a twenty or thirty-something collector can afford to buy a piece of their childhood.

Graham Parker

Owner of The Animation Art GalleryOxford Circus, Central London, England

We have a very global view because we distribute to everyone. We work for our collectors, not the Studios, and have clients from as far away as Australia and the Far East. The market right now is a mixed bag. U.S. retail trade is in poor health, and a lot of galleries specializing in this area are closing down by not meeting their commitments. Warner Bros. hasn't done a lot to help the animation art business. If a limited edition or sericel sells out, they make more, only slightly different. More small dealers are bouncing checks to us, so that is an indication that they are having a hard time. It is hard to sell the limited editions and sericels now because there are so many of them. The studios are being hung by their own rope. Two galleries in Holland and one in Switzerland have closed. A lot of galleries get started and then fall by the wayside. There is a market here for animation art, but it is an expensive market to mine. It takes a lot of investment to build a clientele.

While the studio-driven market is declining, quality dealers that sell vintage artwork have a steady amount of business. Dealing in a variety of art is another must. Collectors like diversity. We do well highlighting certain studios that don't usually get highlighted. The animation art market has grown and expanded, and is in the process of maturing. The days of picking up cels out of novelty are gone. The fashion has gone out of it and that is what the market needs to become a serious business. Moreover in Europe, one can buy a Victorian-era watercolor painting for less than a cel. As the market matures, the collectors are maturing too and looking to animation as a serious form of art. We have serious collectors who are paying serious money to put pieces into their private collections, and own a piece of film history.

We are not the United States of Europe and that impacts the animation art market significantly. In France, Tex Avery is a God. Belgium never had the Flintstones, so it won't sell there. Germany is Disney mad. England has the original voices so the Genie in Aladdin means Robin Williams, versus in Italy where the character isn't portrayed by a big star. We can sell Asterix because we are in Europe, but we couldn't sell it in the U.S. Europe has cultural and language barriers within it as well. Studios can't market to everyone so they're at a real disadvantage. They would need twenty different marketing plans. It is difficult to do business in Europe. For example, taxes are higher: 17.5% in the U.K. and 20% in France. We are not a uniform market, but overall, animation art is well received.

Studio stores don't enhance the animation art market because they give such mis-information. They tell people that the art they are buying will go up in value, when there is no guarantee; they tell people that pieces are retired, when they are not. Galleries have to offer a lot of knowledge, support and customer service. Successful dealers need to have the complete picture: know where the art is from, which film, who worked on it, who drew the cel, etc. We have events to raise our clientele's view of the art all the time. We have had Nick Park visit the store, and the voice of Bart Simpson, Nancy Cartwright, is coming here soon.

We work on an individual, personal collector basis. Most people want to work through their local gallery. We do not compete with galleries in Holland, Germany, or Switzerland because people want personal attention. Direct marketing via e-mail has worked for us because the recipients are our customers and know us. The Internet does not work for us here. In Europe people are charged up to 50¢ per minute to be online and again, there are those language barriers. We don't lose business to U.S. galleries, because again, people want service. For instance, The Simpson s are big here, but I'd rather pick a few choice poses than hang substandard pieces on the walls and try to sell them. It isn't fair to the collector. Sites can be impressive but the gallery might have a bad reputation or sell questionable pieces. We have a site but have found that people are either just window-shopping and not serious; or don't feel comfortable doing transactions this way and have questions, like, "Who will pay for the cel if it is damaged in shipping?" or "What if I don't like it when I get it?" Plus, with a lot of sites, if you've been in one, you've been in them all because there are so many limited editions.

Heidi Leigh

Owner of Animazing GalleryNew York, New York, U.S.A.

The general health of the animation art world is fine, although to look at what has been going on in this industry in the past couple of years would perhaps make one think otherwise; the sudden expansion and consolidation of the Warner Bros. Studio Store Galleries is a good example. There were so many of them in the New York tri-state area that they may have actually outnumbered GAP Stores! Animation Art was the hottest thing imaginable, and like so many others, Warner Bros. jumped onto the bandwagon. This particular bandwagon hit a pothole, and sank into a corporate cesspool of business people that have no love for the artform. Over a dozen galleries have closed in the past couple of years, half of them in Studio Stores, and more will follow. Many independent galleries have changed by expanding into other fields in order to compensate for the lack of vintage artwork floating around. For example, Animazing Gallery in Westchester shows fine, handcrafted works by nearly 200 artisans. Another gallery has started selling fossils and rare dinosaur bones; others now specialize in framing, movie memorabilia, "sports"-orientated animation art or limited editions.

The fact is that none of the galleries have vintage animation art like they did a decade ago. When savvy collectors focus on what they would like to acquire, usually it can be had, but it will cost more, and take longer to find. There is still great art out there, and the fact that cels are officially "A Lost Art Form," just makes most people more determined. Classic characters from great animated films and cartoon shorts are more in demand than ever. The preliminary artwork, and animation drawings have never been so sought after. Certain older sold out limited editions are super hot as well.

With animation in primetime slots on TV, and animated films grossing top dollars at the box office, clearly anyone can see that people love animation. And that, my friend, is why animation art became so popular in the first place.

Heather Kenyon is the Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Magazine.