They are as hot as Yosemite Sam's temper. As treasured as Scrooge McDuck's money bin. As out-of-control as Daffy Duck's state of mind.
Not so long ago they were purely Mickey Mouse. Today they're closer to Picasso and Rembrandt.
What's up, doc?
The price and demand for cartoon cels -- that's what. Those colorful celluloid paintings from which cartoons are made were once trivial pieces of pop art that ended up on the walls of children's rooms. Now these comic drawings, used to create motion in animated films, have become high-priced objets d'art. And it's all happened faster than Roger Rabbit could say "Puh-puh-puh-puh-puh-leeeeeeaase!"
"Everything has skyrocketed," says Luigi Goldberg, director of animation art for the Owl Gallery in San Francisco.
In the early '50s, visitors to Disneyland could purchase vintage cels for less than $5; 10 years ago they sold for $45 to $50.
"Prices have been going up dramatically, at an estimated rate of 25 to 30 percent a year," says Howard Lowery, an animation dealer in Burbank.
In June, 560 cels from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" were offered at Sotheby's Manhattan auction house and the response outdid Popeye's lust for spinach -- prices ranging from $800 to $50,600. "Sotheby's estimated they would bring in from $600,000 to $900,000," Goldberg says. "They brought in $1.8 million."
Why so much lettuce for cels from a 2-year-old rabbit movie? "Animation is to art as jazz is to music," he says, "one of the few original American art forms."
Some cite the resurgence of Disney animation and the aging of such grand old Warner Bros. masters as Chuck Jones and Fritz Freleng. Others point to the giddy child inside us all.
"I think people collect because the pieces represent their youthful, happy memories," says Edith Rudman, director of Gallery Lainzberg, a mail-order cartoon art house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Ron Stark, a chemist at S-R Laboratories in Agoura, Calif., who restores faded cels, sees the demand as the only way cartoon nuts can get close to their idols. "You really can't go up and shake Mickey Mouse's hand or ask for Donald Duck's autograph," he says. "But you can own a piece of a film."
Or can you?
The Roger Rabbit cel that went for $50,600 at Sotheby's featured about two dozen characters. The buyer, St. Louis art gallery owner Philip Samuels, has also paid an astounding $450,000 for a 1934 cel of Mickey Mouse and Clara Cluck. Some predict a cel will soon go for more than $1 million.
Early this month, Lowery auctioned off more than 200 pieces of cartoon art in Burbank. In nearly every case, he says, the amounts bid exceeded his expectations.
The highest selling price was $22,550 -- for cels and a background painting from Disney's "Peter Pan." A rare portrait of Donald Duck in an army hat -- that opened Donald's World War II cartoons -- sold for $7,480, Lowery says, "to a major collector who didn't actually fall in love with it until he came and saw it, framed and hanging on the wall."
An anvil on your noggin, Picasso.
"This was a fairly sleepy field up until five or six years ago," says Lowery. "There were only 11 or 12 people in the country who were dealing animation art full time."
Now about 500 galleries nationwide specialize in animation. Dealers who collected cels before the market went haywire definitely are whistling while they work.
The prices are astonishing, in part, because cels were never supposed to be finished works of art. Each image was inked and painted on celluloid and designed to fill one frame of film. Twenty-four take up a second of screen time. A typical six- to eight-minute cartoon short would use up more than 10,000 drawings and cels. A full-length Disney feature? More than 150,000.
"Each cel was intended to last a week or two," says Stark. "Long enough to get from the ink and paint department to the camera department."
For connoisseurs, the blue chips of the market were always vintage, pre-war cels from such films as "Snow White," "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia." A cel's value is based on quality and condition and the scene's significance.
"Cels done prior to World War II are very much more collectible and valuable," says Kim McEuen of San Jose, Calif., who runs the Mouse Club, an international organization of 2,500 collectors of Disney memorabilia. "At least they should be."
That's partly because the early artwork was so sophisticated, but also because so many are gone. Some cels were washed clean and reused during the war years when petroleum products were rationed. Others simply were tossed out. And -- sufferin' succotash! -- "the Warner Brothers cels were for the most part destroyed in the '60s to make room to store publicity material," says Rudman.
Suddenly, however, those rational rules no longer apply. Today collectors are paying big bucks not only for production cels -- those that appeared in films -- but also for so-called "limited edition" cels and lithographs -- cartoon artwork that is anything but original.
Examples include lithographs featuring Warner Bros. characters such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. They're signed by animators Fritz Freleng, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones and offered for prices in the $200 to $800 range.
Never to be outdone, Disney is grinding out cel sets featuring memorable scenes from the likes of "Snow White" and "Fantasia" -- copies of scenes from the classics done by Disney studio artists. They sell for $2,000 to $6,000.
"Disney is being very wise," says the Mouse Club's McEuen. "They are creating their own marketplace and their own market price."
McEuen says the studio offered those Roger Rabbit cels at auction to test the market. Now that prices are established, more cels from the hit movie will be offered. "The people who are collecting those limited editions are not pure Disney collectors," he says. "They are doing it on a whim."
"A lot of people want to own the image," says Stark. "It's funny but you know P.T. Barnum was right. You can really fool a lot of people."
Even the limited editions go like Speedy Gonzales. "They're done in the same manner as the original cel," says Owl Gallery's Goldberg. "They're all hand-lined and hand-painted. And they all show a 'primo' scene from the movie -- something everyone remembers."
"In order for something to become a collectible, it has to be available," adds mail-order gallery director Rudman.
But isn't a copy of a scene from a 50-year-old film that's painted today something of an imitation?
"Yes, but it's an approved imitation," says Lowery, the Burbank auctioneer, without a trace of sarcasm. "I think that stamp of legitimacy goes a long way."
Since the value of animation art has increased, so have the numbers of fakes. "There are forgeries out there," says Stark, who has authenticated cels for Disney. The experts warn that buying from legitimate galleries is a safeguard against fraud, but there are no guarantees.
McEuen of the Mouse Club points out that even original production cels are not true "originals" -- they are mere tracings of the animator's pencil sketches, done by teams of inkers and painters.
"The inker traces the outline and then the painter paints. We are paying big money for tracings. Who's going to pay a lot of money for a tracing of a Picasso?"
Everyone says speculating in Warner's pigs and bunnies and Disney's ducks and mice -- rather than Wall Street's bulls and bears -- is not the best idea.
"Animation art should not be viewed as an investment property," says Stark, who insists those who turn a profit do so on pure luck. "People should collect it because they enjoy it. ... If you want an investment property, invest in Disney or IBM stock."
Of course, your dinner guests won't be impressed if you hang IBM stock certificates on the wall.
"It's not that difficult to understand if you have some disposable income to invest," says Lowery. "You can show your dinner guests a nice cel of Captain Hook from Peter Pan and everybody ooohs and aaahs."
And maybe tosses a little pixie dust in the air.
Cel Prices, From Bedrock Up
Even though the price of animation art is skyrocketing, dealers say every cartoon fan should be able to find something in his or her price range. Prices vary from gallery to gallery, of course. The following is a very random sampling:
Fred Flintstone. Production cel from 1988: $115.
"The Cat's-Bah." A 1988 limited-edition release of 300 Pepe LePew cels signed by Chuck Jones: $350.
"That's All Folks!" A 1989 limited-edition release of 500 Porky Pig cels signed by Fritz Freleng: $475.
"Nude Duck Descending a Staircase." A 1989 lithograph signed by Chuck Jones: $700.
"Cinderella." Production cel from the Disney movie: $1,200.
"Lady and the Tramp." Production cel and background scenes from the Disney movie: $16,000.