World Magazine, Issue 2.8, November 1997
So, You Want To Open An Animation Art Gallery!
by Tim Stocoak
Editor's Note: This is an unabridged editorial submitted by Tim Stocoak. We invite people to submit such editorials to us for publication and to respond.
Ah, a rewarding career in the world of retail animation art! I only got involved in this lucrative business after Cal Arts returned my portfolio with a footprint (!) on the cover one year, and lost my portfolio entirely another year (both true stories). With my hopes of being the next Bob Clampett effectively squashed (yet not stretched), I did what I perceived to be the next best thing. If I couldn't create cartoons for an eager public, then the logical substitute would be to sell them to an even more eager public. I began working in that bastard child of the animation industry - the animation art industry: I got a job in a cartoon gallery. Five years of experience in this field taught me some valuable lessons.
I'm no longer in this wonderful business, but I'm here to pass on some of the most important ideas I have learned to anyone else thinking of embarking on a rewarding career in the field of selling cels...
1.) The real animation industry and the animation art gallery industry are actually related...sort of.
The animation art gallery is sort of like the poor relation to the animation production industry. Think of animation production as, oh, I dunno, Mufasa from The Lion King. The gallery world is therefore Scar - the weak, unsuccessful, and slightly evil scavenging brother who picks through the stronger sibling's refuse merely to stay alive. What a wonderful career! A professional vulture!
2.) All animation art is garbage, but valuable garbage!
Stand in any gallery long enough and soon you'll hear someone - employee or bemused, know-it-all customer - utter the phrase, "They used to throw these things out!" with regards to the cels, now framed and bearing high price tags, on the walls. Gallery employees, therefore, are making their living selling the studios' garbage! While a lot of this stuff, which was considered garbage 50 years ago, is now truly valuable and important to preserve, it's rather ironic that what the studios and other licensees are generating today, specifically to be sold as "collectibles," is, in fact, trash. It is trash today, and it will be trash 50 years from now. But who's going to care 50 years from now? You'll be happily retired or maybe even dead.
3.) If you don't have production art to sell, draw up a new cel, label it "limited edition" and watch the public snatch it up faster than the original art.
The vague term "limited edition" has, of late, been carefully ingrained into the public's consciousness as, "something, anything, worth collecting." Studios can paint up 250 to 750 identical cels that were never used in any production, have some old animator sign them, slap some over-important seal on the front, and then peddle them off as quick as they please. How many times can old animation celebrities sign their name before it actually devalues the previous cels they've signed? One particularly beloved and aggressively marketed veteran animator has personally signed his name well over sixty thousand times on limited edition cels alone! Can his signature really be that valuable any more? Aah, just sell the stuff and try not to worry about it. Customers can sense fear.
4.) Don't limit yourself to selling just production cels and limited edition cels.
Many galleries now feature other fine, limited edition collectibles for the ignorant public to buy. Some such products include pewter sculptures looking like little more than garishly painted PVC figures glued to a piece of marble; ragged papier-mâché bas-relief-type wall sculptures of all of your favorite characters in glorious white; and poster-size images of entire studios' casts of characters, all meticulously cut out and glued to different levels of foam core in a half-baked effort to give the illusion of three dimensions. Perhaps to let others interpret their characters in their individual styles, the studios apparently give the artists - none of whom are particularly famous or talented nor have anything remotely to do with the animation world - absolutely no reference materials from which to work. If you and your customers like characters realized completely off-model in various dimensions for which they were never suited, then any of these wonderful products are for you. As an added bonus, each of these collectibles have been hand-signed by whichever dubious talent created it. Marvelous!
5.) Don't worry that cels are being slowly phased out in the production end of animation - that's just more acetate for you!
All that extra acetate can be put to good use making sericels of scenes from cartoons that didn't even use cels! Sericels, basically cels with images grafted onto them via the serigraph process, are usually released in edition sizes of about 1,000 to 10,0000. There's no shortage of these babies... but then, there's no shortage of stupid collectors to buy them! And don't fret that "computer animation" will put you out of business. Scenes from the computer generated Coca-Cola Polar Bear series of commercials have been transferred onto sericels and sold as "original animation art!" People love this stuff despite its inherent worthlessness. You can't lose!
6.) Animation art dealers are the salt of the earth, especially the ones on the East Coast.
By opening an animation art gallery, you'll be joining the ranks of a revered and unique brotherhood known for its intelligence, honesty and integrity. Most dealers are everyday people, no different than you or I, with a fervent love of cartoons that just couldn't be quenched by simply, writing books about cartoons or just maybe watching cartoons. No, these honorable people had to share their love of the animated image by making this whimsical artwork available to those who otherwise wouldn't have had the opportunity to buy a picture of Frankenberry, mis-identified as a character from The Groovy Goolies, for six hundred dollars, all sales final. For this we thank them. Soon, your customers will be thanking you!
7.) When selling animation art, the key word is "investment."
As a dealer, your job is to separate customers from their hard-earned money in exchange for a picture of Mickey Mouse or Fat Albert or a Smurf. The easiest way to do this is to appeal to their financial sense by explaining that a picture of Magilla Gorilla will better suit their needs of putting their kids through college twelve years from now than would long-term CDs or blue chip stocks. Fortunately, since today's public is more stupid than ever, and since magazines, newspapers, and the ten o'clock news routinely feature cutesy human interest stories about how animation memorabilia is the hot, "new" collectible, your job is easy.
8.) Despite #7, animation art never really goes up in value.
That is, when you are buying it. Once your retail animation art business has been established for a while, you'll get the opportunity to buy from everyday schmoes as opposed to buying all your art from the studios' impersonal "wholesale animation art" departments and other dealers. Folks will call or come in with artwork to sell, with the preconceived notion that whatever they have is really quite valuable. An important rule to remember is that the actual value of any piece of animation art brought in by a non-dealer is inversely proportional to what they think it's worth. That guy coming in with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cel with the $3.99 Toys-R-Us sticker still on it will want thousands of dollars for it, while the hapless fellow with the Snow White cel on the master background won't part with it for less than four hundred clams.
Regardless, it is your job - née, your responsibility - as a dealer to give that person as little money as possible for that piece of artwork. Remember, they wouldn't be selling it unless they really needed the money, or, in many cases, if it wasn't stolen, so they'll probably take whatever you offer them. So while their face may sink when you offer them a mere fraction of its true market value, be strong. To offer a fair price would be to turn your back on the community of dealers who have worked so hard at bilking countless others - including numerous, ancient retired animators who saved their own work for decades - out of priceless artwork for pennies on the dollar. So, disregard what the latest auction results reflect; disregard how long a particular limited edition has been sold out; disregard how rare a character is; and disregard that the person offering you a cel originally bought it from your company five years ago only because you advised him that the artwork was sure to go up in value. As a good animation art dealer, you will learn how to make the seller feel like you are doing him a favor by taking his valuable cel off his hands for a fraction of its worth. And, most importantly, when buying artwork, paying for it with a wad of twenties goes a long way towards making the seller think he's getting more than he really is.
9.) If you have a gallery, be sure to be ready with an answer for any question that may pop up.
Nothing scares off customers quicker than ignorance on the part of gallery employees. And, as anyone who has visited most animation galleries, private, or those within so-called "Studio Stores" knows, most gallery employees are as ignorant, if not more so, than the clueless customers who wander in. Does that stop them from making a sale? No sir! The trick is to use intimidation, or to change the subject to confuse the potential customer into either buying something that they don't want or at least just shutting up and letting you alone, leaving you, the gallery dealer or employee, free to go back to playing solitaire on the computer. Following are some suggested responses which work well for any number of questions you may receive.
"Um, because, like, they are like, highly collectible and are like, a good investment, you know?"
"Ohhhh yes, he's one of my favorite...animation...guys...too."
"No, not currently, but if you write your name and phone number on this card, if we ever get anything in with uh...that character, we'll call you."
"Ohhhh yes...It's fun artwork, isn't it?"
These stock responses work well with all but about 2% of the people who will come into your gallery. Occasionally, people who actually work in the production end of the animation industry will visit your place of business. This is unfortunate, yet unavoidable. Usually, they appear in pairs, and talk quietly among themselves, occasionally chuckling at the high prices of cels from projects they worked on, or at the gross inaccuracies on the descriptive labels of various framed pieces. The bolder of these people will bring to your attention the mistakes on said labels, while others will merely ask you technical questions, the answers to which, as a dealer of animation art, you should know, but will not. Any conversation initiated by industry professionals is done solely so that they may watch you squirm. This is their right as they would not have you forget that as an animation art dealer, you are merely a parasite feeding off of the talents of others. Squirm, you leech, squirm! It is but a small price to pay for all the money you'll be raking in hand over fist from the other 98% of your customers.
10.) No matter how many countless cels and other collectibles of every imaginable sort that Warner Bros. produces, they will never, ever glut the market.
At least that's how it would seem. God bless Bugs Bunny and Taz and millions of stupid consumers worldwide. These are the rabbits, Tasmanian Devils and people who will make you, as an animation art dealer, very rich.
Tim Stocoak, a disgruntled former animation art gallery employee, is the editor of BEA & EFF, a zine about the ridiculous world of animation art collecting.
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