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Animation History up for Bid at Bonhams’ Art Auction

Just under 400 pieces of production art, concept drawings and other industry works were up for sale to the highest bidder at the June 13th animation art auction.

What happens when your home is decorated with a several hundred pieces of animation art: production cels, concept art, animation drawings, etc., etc. and especially etc.—and you’re moving to smaller digs?

If you’re Ted and Dawn Hopkins, you get in touch with Bonhams, a worldwide auction house, to sell your collection. And if you’re Bonhams, you partner up with Turner Classic Movies to help you spread the word.

The auction, officially known as “Drawn to Film: Animation Art” took place June 13th at Bonhams’ Madison Avenue gallery in New York City. “It’s a very approachable sale,” Lucy Carr, Bonhams’ PR rep tells me. “You can get an original animation drawing for a few hundred dollars.” (The auction catalog estimates one of Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy will go for between $500 and $700, and a cel of one of Fantasia’s bare-breasted centaurettes for between $800 and $1,200.) “It’s definitely a good entry point for people who are looking to start collecting.”

I’m a bit surprised at these low estimates; I’ve heard that original animation art—from Disney’s earliest features in particular—has become pretty pricey in recent years. “The market kind of peaked in the late ‘80s and early 90s,” Carr explains. “That’s when you were seeing those five-figure prices for a lot of pieces, the best scenes from Snow White and Disney’s other classics. The market has settled a bit since then. The estimates in the catalog are the average range for these items.”

Bonhams’ slick, shiny catalog lists just under 400 items, all but the first 93 from the Hopkins collection. The Hopkins items are listed in chronological order, from Steamboat Willie through Beauty and the Beast, followed by an assortment of Looney Tunes art, original Chuck Jones drawings and various miscellanea. “Ted and Dawn Hopkins started collecting in the 1980s. They were really interested in covering the whole history of animation from quite early on. A 1910 frame of McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur is their earliest piece, but their collection focuses on 1914 through the 1980s, which was contemporary for them at the time,” notes Carr.

And what of Turner Classic Movies’ involvement? (The TCM logo graces the catalog cover alongside the auction’s title.) Carr says, “Turner Classic Movies is our partner at memorabilia auctions. They provide curatorial, editorial and marketing for us: announcements on the channel, Emails to their subscribers and members of their fan club TCM Backlot; it’s a great way for us to expand our buyer base to people who’ve never been to an auction. That’s the extent of their involvement; the items in the auction aren’t owned by TCM. We source the items, name and evaluate them, and write the catalog descriptions.”

Bonhams’ animation art consultant Dana Hawkes undoubtedly had a hand in writing those descriptions and mounting these sorts of events; she’s been doing it for thirty years, twenty of them at Sotheby’s before going freelance.

Just about every animation cel has a background behind it— as the catalog states, “either a facsimile background, a Courvoisier background or a watercolor production background.” (Whoever paired a cel of Mowgli and Kaa with a snowy nighttime landscape most likely from 101 Dalmatians probably wasn’t familiar enough with either Disney film.)

I’ve seen the term “Courvoisier” in other animation auction catalogs, but have no idea what it is. “In the 1930s,” Hawkes explains, “after the success of Snow White, the Courvoisier art gallery approached Disney about selling animation art and cels. The first show was a sellout, as were shows for Pinocchio, Fantasia and so on. Courvoisier created original backgrounds for the cels with Disney’s advice. The characteristics of a Courvoisier background are very different from an original Disney one: a lot of them are airbrushed or have a little stamp that says ‘WDP.’”

The auction is about to begin. There are only 32 seats in the gallery set up in front of the auctioneer’s podium, and only 11 people filling them, including myself. I’ve foolishly signed up for the auction and given a “paddle” (actually a large laminated card printed with my four-digit identifying number) because I know I’m undoubtedly going to succumb to temptation and bid on something I can’t afford but would love to see gracing my apartment walls. (Only $800 for that centaur babe or $700 for a model cel of Bambi’s voluptuous Miss Bunny, complete with “hand- prepared” background!)

Off to one side sit a row of Bonhams people relaying online and phone bids from remote buyers, who outnumber us folks there in person. (The entire affair is being streamed on their website, the feed from a camera trained on auctioneer Will O’Reilly alongside the art and latest bid.) Here in the gallery O’Reilly is bracketed by two large flatscreen TVs, one showing the image up for grabs and to the right a second screen displaying the constantly updated bid in six different currencies.

The bidding begins at noon, with lot number one—an original production cel of Mickey chasing Minnie from Mickey’s Steam Roller paired with a background from a different Mickey short, Blue Rhythm. It goes for $13,000, two grand lower than the estimated $15,000 low bid. (It will cost the winner $16,250 to take the thing home once Bonhams’ 25% selling premium is added on.)

The bidding goes on and the third item, a cel from the Silly Symphony Music Land goes for $300 more than its originally estimated $2,500. With the help of his technical staff, O’Reilly adroitly handles the affair with an occasional touch of humor. (Due to the huge number of items in the auction he’ll eventually be spelled by a relief auctioneer.) At one point he good-naturedly beseeches the attendees to bid on a Silly Symphonies caricature of Cab Calloway that at first garners no interest; the cel eventually goes for close to $1,000, well above its $700 top estimate.

A fellow one seat away from me is awfully interested in a production cel of the White Rabbit from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland— interested enough to outbid an online buyer and eventually win the item for $1,300, again above Bonhams’ $700 top estimate.

The bidding continues to go on and it’s not until 4:30 that the last item, number 389—a signed, limited edition photograph of a group of elderly animators—goes for $625 including the auction house’s premium. The day’s big winner: one of Carl Barks’ famous duck paintings, a scene from The Golden Helmet, goes for $31,250 including Bonhams’ premium, well below its $35,000 low end estimate. The runner-up: $18,750 for 71 Silly Symphony animation drawings, also below its low estimate. There’s evidently no way of predicting who will want these items bad enough and how much they’re willing to spend to get one. (A week after the auction a gallery staffer Emails me “the overall sale total with premium was above the low estimate.”)

The ones that interested me, the Fantasia centaurette and Bambi’s Miss Bunny, go for respectively $875 including premium, and…no one bid on the bunny; I could’ve snagged her for the auctioneer’s starting bid. At least I have something to take home, something from my favorite animated feature: a 22 by 28 inch window card from the Mount Union movie theater letting the world (or at least Mount Union) know they’ll be showing Fantasia from October fifth through the seventh, and it only cost me $420—before Bonhams’ premium, of course. (I knew I shouldn’t have picked up that auction paddle.)

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A full list of the auctioned items, including their final sale prices and downloadable images can be found at http://tinyurl.com/zshhunu

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.

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