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Inside Christie's: A Conversation With Elyse Luray-Marx

Heather Kenyon interviews Christie's animation art expert, Elyse Luray-Marx, for an inside view into the prestigious auction house. Are they stuffy? Guess again!

Elyse Luray-Marx is the animation art specialist and Animation Auction Supervisor at the world renowned Christie's. While consultant Pierre Lambert helps authenticate and determine the value of specific pieces and increase the European market and awareness, Elyse is in charge of gathering materials and performing the necessary business deals for the auction house. She is also responsible for appraising pieces of art work and with building Christie's clientele and helping to educate the public about animation art. I spoke with Elyse while she was in the midst of preparing the next Christie's auction: the special offering of Chuck Jones' personal animation art collection. Just in time for the holidays and to honor his 85th birthday, the auction will take place on December 18, 1997 at 10:00 in New York City. I was pleasantly surprised when I spoke to Elyse. Rather than a lofty, high-art attitude one might expect from such a renowned New York auction house, Elyse has a forthcoming, enthusiastic and friendly demeanor. Heather Kenyon: How do you invite people to come to auctions? Elyse Luray-Marx: All [of] our auctions are open to the public. We go "on view," meaning that you can actually view the pieces, five days prior to each auction. So, we will be open to the public for five days and that usually is over one weekend. We are open late on Monday nights for people to come in. We advertise in all the trade magazines relating to animation, as well as on our site on the Internet. Locally in The New York Times, and in The Los Angeles Times if the sale is in Los Angeles. Basically, we have two sales a year. They're always every December in New York and every June. The June auctions will now be taking place in Los Angeles. HK: How do you prepare the pieces for an auction? Do you get the pieces in all different types of condition?

ELM: Well, basically we're an auction house, so we're not a gallery. We sell everything "as-is." We don't necessarily do anything to the pieces, except to offer the service of having the piece professionally matted for a fee. If you bring a piece in and it is not framed, we do have professional portfolios that we place the pieces in for the viewing [prior to the auction]. In the gallery during the viewing, all the framed pieces go up on the walls and all the un-framed pieces are placed in portfolios on a table with gloves for people to go through and look at them.

Phone bidders at work at an animation art auction at Christie's East. Elyse Luray-Marx, holding paddle 8, is Christie's Animation Art specialist. © Christie's.

Phone bidders at work at an animation art auction at Christie's East. Elyse Luray-Marx, holding paddle 8, is Christie's Animation Art specialist. © Christie's.

HK: If you get cels that are very old, and maybe the paint is coming off, how is that treated? I know for instance that there are people who just specialize in fixing that, do you hire them prior?

ELM: Well, I don't advise either way because 50 percent of my clients don't want to touch [the pieces] and 50 percent of my clients don't care if it's touched. If they do want it to be fixed, there are two people I highly recommend, the two best people in the country: one is in Arizona and one is in Virginia. Ron Barbagallo, he's by far, across the board, he's the best. Then there's Judy Stillway who does really, really nice work.

HK: Can you describe the process? For instance, "I just found a 1930's Disney piece." What do I do?

ELM: There are a couple of different ways. I get a tremendous amount of phone calls, and most of those people will describe the piece on the telephone and if I think it's worth the time, I will tell them to send a photograph of the piece in. Eighty-five percent of the appraisals we do are usually by photograph. Once we receive the photograph, we send the person a letter. In the letter, we give them an auction estimate as well as outline our sale of terms, how you go about bringing a piece into Christie's. If you're in the area, you can make an appointment for a free appraisal. You're more than welcome to come to Christie's and make an appointment. I'll come down to see you and talk to you about your pieces. Lastly, if you have a very large collection, it pays for me to fly to wherever you are. We will travel to see collections depending on what the dollar value of that collection is.

HK: People think that Christie's is somehow very exclusive. "I can't talk to anyone there or I don't know how to even go about it." But it's really as simple as calling you?

ELM: Absolutely, I'm more than happy to help anybody. One of our jobs is to educate the public. Whether that's educating them on what their property is worth, finding something they're interested in or just learning about animation art, that's what the phones are there for. We're always on the floor during the whole viewing times to answer any questions for clients to learn. That's really an important thing for us. Education is something we feel really strongly about. In fact, [we will] probably have an educational course in Los Angeles. We had one scheduled, [but] unfortunately, for reasons beyond our control, [it] had to be canceled.

HK: It will be open to anyone? To teach them about animation art?

ELM: Yes. Basically, the most important thing to know is we're really out there to help people in anyway that we possibly can. Whether it's teaching them about animation or appraising their artwork or helping them build their collections, we really try to be accessible to people and help them in anyway possible. That's really the most important thing.

HK: It's great to hear you say that, because I think a lot of people believe Christie's is only for extremely rich people, but that isn't the feel of the atmosphere.

ELM: And that's not the case, truly not the case, which is why I think we have had such a strong following for animation for so many years.

HK: Let's say, you have these pieces of artwork collected, waiting for the next sale, and there's a fire. Do people assign the pieces to you and then you sell them for a percentage of what they [are auctioned] for? Christie's never owns the pieces?

ELM: No, we don't. We're strictly a consignment-based auction house. In reference to the fire, everything is insured for the mean of the estimate before it goes up for auction. Knock on wood, that never happens.

HK: I know, didn't mean to make you think about it.

Key set-up from How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), signed by Chuck Jones. Estimate: $3,000-$5,000. © Warner Bros.

Key set-up from How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), signed by Chuck Jones. Estimate: $3,000-$5,000. © Warner Bros.

ELM: No, everything is insured. Unless you want to sign an insurance waiver. One percent of the selling price is the charge you pay for insurance. Our commission is based on a sliding scale and depending on how much the piece is worth is the percentage that we take.

HK: Why do people come to Christie's to sell their pieces? What's the advantage?

ELM: Well, we're an international auction house, which is the first big advantage. We were the first auction house to actually hold international animation auctions starting in 1985. We represent the fair market value of the pieces and we have the ability to really give great customer service to our clients. We work hard to get the highest prices, which is why we have a lot of the records for pieces that are sold at auctions.

HK: It seems to me that the pieces would be perceived as being more valuable if they're sold at Christie's verses if they're sold through other channels.

ELM: I would like to think that.

HK: How do you get people to bring their special pieces to you? Are you actively seeking people out or do you wait for people to come to you?

ELM: A little of both. Certainly there are clients that we cultivate because we know they have really nice collections but a lot of it is word of mouth. People saying, "I met this person, why don't you call them?" Advertising during appraisal days lets people know that we are happy to help them.

HK: Do you ever cater to special, individual buyers?

ELM: Once in a while we'll do a private sale, but those private sales are pieces that are over $100,000.

HK: How do you know if you have enough art to hold an auction?

ELM: It's a dollar value. We don't hold auctions below half a million dollars. We usually have about 200 lots per auction.

HK: What is a "lot?"

ELM: Each piece is called a lot. We used to have 400 lots, but what we have done is we've raised the minimum per lot. We used to be able to sell a lot at $500, but now if you bring in one piece the minimum is $1500. Our auctions are smaller, but our selling dollars are either the same, if not higher, because we are really concentrating on selling the higher-end animation. HK: Now, you also have a Christie's in London. ELM: We do and we've sold animation there once a year. It tends to be lower-end value pieces. They're very different than the sales in New York. HK: If I'm in London and I have a piece, it would almost be better to contact you in New York, to sell it in one of those auctions? ELM: Well, the market is stronger right now in the United States, but my minimum is $1,500 and South Kensington's is a little bit less than that. They have the opportunity to sell lower-end items where I really don't. But that doesn't necessarily mean it would sell better at one place than the other. We are an international auction house, so our buyers are going to go regardless [of] where the property is. HK: How many people attend the average auction? ELM: I would say there's about a hundred people that come and there's usually about twenty phone lines going at the same time. HK: Oh, wow. I thought you had to be there. ELM: If you can't come to the auction physically, you can be on the telephone where we will repeat all the action that's going on in the room. If that's not convenient for you, you can leave bids and we will execute them for you and try to get [the artwork] as low as possible. Or you can fax in bids and we can execute your faxed bids. So it is possible for us to do it for you even if you're not around. HK: One would just fax in, "Lot 17. I'll bid up to $15,000," and you would take care of that for them? ELM: That's correct. HK: How many people work an average auction? ELM: I would say twenty to twenty five people, depending on the amount of phone interest. HK: And are they all full-time employees of Christie's? ELM: Yes. HK: The people on the phone lines, where are they? Are they predominately in Europe?

ELM: Yes, but I would say it depends... If we are selling on the East Coast, then there are a lot [of people] from the West Coast [calling], and if we're on the West Coast selling a lot of [people] from the East [are calling]. However, 40 percent of our sales are going to Europe and Asia. HK: Could you walk us through the entire event? Like the day in the life of an auction?

ELM: Sure. First of all, six months prior to an auction, I'm going out and looking at the material and trying to cultivate and put together a sale. Then we come into the auction house and we get together all the property three months prior to the auction. We catalogue it. We shoot it here in New York, in our digital professional photo studio. Then we lay out the catalogue, and we send it to our printers in London. A month before the auction, the catalogue comes out and goes to our subscription list, editorial and also a press release will go out trying to generate any press that we can get. For instance, with Chuck Jones' 85th birthday we're selling his personal collection in December, and we were able to generate a lot of press because we [distributed the information] very early. Then for the next month, prior to the auction, after the catalogues are out, I'm trying to sell the sell. I'm calling clients, telling them what I think would be good for their collection, what I don't think would be good for their collection, what's rare, giving them advice, [and] doing condition reports if [they] can't come to see the pieces and want to know what condition a piece is in. I'll help with that.

Key set-up from Another Froggy Evening (1995), signed by Chuck Jones. Estimate: $1,500-$2,000. © Warner Bros.

Key set-up from Another Froggy Evening (1995), signed by Chuck Jones. Estimate: $1,500-$2,000. © Warner Bros.

HK: You're hands-on, talking to the main buyers that you know so that they will show up and they will purchase?

ELM: Absolutely. The day of the auction, you can come to the viewing, you can look at all the properties, or you can pre-register so the day of the auction there's paddles already waiting for you when you come in. Then the auction starts and you bid on what you want, then you pay and then you pick up your property.

HK: What time of day are they?

ELM: This one will be at 10 o'clock in the morning.

HK: How long do they last? ELM: We do a hundred lots per hour. HK: Wow, that's quick! What sort of people attend and what do they wear? (laughs) This is what we're really interested in... ELM: Everything. People come in suits. People come in jeans. You have lawyers. You have doctors and you have Wall Street-types. But you also have artists and other animators, actors. It's emotional. The characters are emotional and they reflect a response in you that is either reminiscent of something in the past or makes you smile or you makes you laugh or cry. It really affects a lot of different types of people. HK: Are they a very different crowd than, for instance, one that comes to the other auctions that Christie's holds, or do you get that mix for everything? ELM: I would say we get that mix for everything. The nice thing about animation is there's really, truly some artistic worth to it. Some of the best artists of the century worked at the Disney Studios or Warner Bros. Studios so we are recognizing that animation is an art form. There is a sophistication to this type of collectible, so you do have clients out there that understand art for art's sake, verses different types of collectibles that we sell here. In our department, movie memorabilia doesn't really have any aesthetic value, where animation truly does. HK: What is included in the collectibles department? ELM: In the collectibles department here at Christie's? We sell animation art, comic art, entertainment, rock and roll, sport memorabilia, vintage posters including Hollywood movie posters, western memorabilia, toys, dolls and teddy bears. HK: What is the atmosphere like inside the auction? ELM: It's a lot of fun. People have been coming here since 1985, so a lot of the dealers, clients, have become personal friends of Christie's. I think they feel really comfortable here, and we have a lot of fun at the auctions. There's always a lot of laughs. HK: It's such a small market for the very high-priced pieces of artwork, you really know each and every one of these people, so you can cater to them on what they need, don't you? ELM: We hope to. We certainly hope to. It is small but it's been growing tremendously over the last five years, so that's been really nice. HK: Do you have people contact you, "Just letting you know, I'm really interested in x-kind of artwork"? ELM: We have something at Christie's called, "Lot Finder" that you can subscribe to and it's very inexpensive. If you're interested in Donald Duck, anywhere in the world that Christie's sells something with Donald Duck on it, they'll send you a letter notifying you that it's coming up for auction.

HK: Who would you call for that?

ELM: Her name is Dell Feldman and she's in charge of customer service here at Christie's.

HK: Then you also mentioned that you can register to receive a catalogue? ELM: Well, there's subscriptions. You can sign up for a subscription and again, for a small fee, we will send you all the catalogues. This year we're actually doing something new, which is we're selling animation in the morning and comic art and collectibles in the afternoon. It should be interesting to see if there's any crossover between the two. HK: Does it seem like there's a trend of these rare pieces drying up? ELM: It is drying up. They are much, much harder to find then they were ten years ago, extremely hard actually. Another problem is that computers have replaced cels so there are not a lot [of new cels]. I think eventually drawings and backgrounds will become that much more desirable because that's all there will be to collect, which is why we sold a storyboard drawing for $101,500. I think people are starting to realize, "Hey, these pieces are just as important as key set-ups." I'm selling contemporary Chuck Jones' pieces in this [upcoming] auction that are from 1994 and 1995, but these are the last cels that Warner Bros. used. Historically, they are really important. You can say they're key set-ups and they're contemporary but that's it, they're the last ones. You won't be able to get them anymore. HK: It is interesting that you're selling pieces from 1994 and 1995 and that they still have such value, even though they are so new. ELM: It's not often that I do. [But] because I'm selling the personal collection of Chuck Jones, it's the exception to the rule and again, they are [the] key set-ups that were used for the films and are hand painted. I'm not selling contemporary limited editions where the cels are produced just for re-sale purposes only. The re-sale prices of those cels have been almost fifty percent [less] on the dollar at auction. HK: You don't sell any limited editions?

ELM: No, I do not. Never will. I don't think we ever will. We only sell original artwork. For information about Christie's auctions or catalogues, call 1-800-395-6300 (U.S. and Canada) or visit Heather Kenyon is Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Magazine.