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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Buy For the "Decisive Moment"

Bob's Commentary --

Somebody asked me what I looked for when buying some art. I smiled and thought it would probably be easier to define Love or something else equally abstract. While it may be easy to dismiss the whole issue as "too abstract," the issue of money (and what you get for it) is pretty real. I think it's important to understand that when it comes to these types of purchases everyone has their own "return on investment" formula. People buy cars and cloths for different reasons and the same it true with art (classical, animation, comic, etc.). About the only thing I can bring to the table is what I personally looked for when buying this stuff.

There was a point in time that I bought real estate (maybe 20 years ago) as "an investment." I quickly found out that as a land speculator I sucked. So, when it came to buying collectibles I decided that I should only buy because I liked it and would be happy to have it on my walls for a long time. I guess that's what I've done, because I only recently sold a few items after just buying for over 25 years.

From a practical standpoint, a feature-length animated film probably has over 300,000 cels. My guess is that 90% are not really collectible -- the eyes are closed, only one arm is showing, etc. Now, we're down to a more manageable 3,000. Come to think about it, the number is probably higher if you add back in the number of story boards, concept drawings and pencil sketches that might be available. But I digress... So, how do you spend your hard earned cash? How do you determine what has value?

[Note: if you want items to demonstrate something specific (like flipping through a sequence, or demonstrating action), then a different set of criteria apply.]

In a former lifetime, I used to work/teach Radio & TV. In the degree program I developed, I had all my students start with basic photography. Not because they needed to operate a camera, but what they needed was to look at the world differently (did the same thing in the audio area by having students walk around with tape recorders to get "sound bites). The book that changed the way I looked at the world was Henri Cartier-Bresson's (1908-2004) "The Decisive Moment" (1952). To put his book into my words: "All interactions have a decisive moment. A moment in time that captures the essence of the event." While I'm sure there are many that would disagree with my reading, all I can say is that this "vision" has served me well with my students, in my photography and in my purchase decisions. As far as animation art is concerned, I look at eyes, the pose, how the hands are held. Try to determine if the cel or sketch, whatever, is communicating the essence of the character or some fundamental aspect of the story line. [Boy, this is pretty "thoughtful" exercise for a cartoon!]

Let me put up a few examples from our collection (there won't be any real description of the items in this entry. I'll post a write-up on each piece later).

“Ferdinand the Bull” (1938). There are lots of great pieces of art on the market from Ferdinand and I own about 20. But, to me, this cel really communicates Ferdinand's "inner soul." First, it's has both a touching sentimental quality to it. Second, the notion of a bull smelling flowers before going into the Bull Ring is funny. Third, a dark realization that this may be the last time Ferdinand smells those flowers. It worked for me. For more information in this image, click here.

"Little Mermaid" (1989). Wow! Is this almost 10 years old? At any rate... This came out around the time when the auction houses were doing big animation auctions. Lots of stuff was on the block and this is the one I picked to bid on. Why? To me, movie was a great "coming of age" film where Ariel makes her own decisions and gains her own independence -- but at a cost. As far as I was concerned, seeing her feet for the first time made a significant statement about her character and was a turning point for the film. Of course, there are other critical plot points, but this single frame seemed to sum it all up.

"Lady And The Tramp" (1955). When we first thought about collecting animation art, my wife and I immediately thought of the scene outside Tony's. "Wouldn't it be great to find...!" When we asked if something like that was available, everyone we talked to just laughed. All this time, we thought we were the first ones to think of that! Over the years, I've bought lots of material from the film, but it wasn't until 2004 that I was able to pick up this "Bella Notte" set-up of the Master Background, cels of Tramp & Lady and a rare cel of the tablecloth. I have to say, I prefer this general positioning of the characters over sequences where they are closer together. Why? Well, as viewers, this is the point were we know what's going to happen. It's when you just start to crack a smile. A few seconds from here, the spaghetti starts to tighten up and you wonder why Tramp and Lady don't react. Still, if you can find anything from this sequence you should consider buying it -- the were not that many frames to begin with!

"Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914). Seems like I recently read that there were only about 400 drawings known to exist of Gertie. Given the historical importance of the film, any drawing is a good one. I came across several and thought this one was one of the best I had seen in a long time and bought it. There were a few reasons: it was a large image of Gertie, great look on her face, and nice detail in the extended foot. But, for me, it communicated real confidence -- this IS Gertie.

"Mail Pilot" (1933). I show this example because it demonstrates how two observers can pick a different image as being "the best." In 1990, I bought this pencil of Mickey and Minnie from the "Mail Pilot." As a pilot, I've tended to collect some items because they had some kind of airplane/flight element (not because it had commercial value!). I loved the expressions of both Mickey and Minnie -- real joy. And the "goofoid" figures seemed to be having a good time as well!

I would guess it was in the late 1990's (I'm missing the purchase date) that I was walking through a Disney Store and saw this serigraph hanging on the wall. I remember thinking: "Boy, I've seen this before ... Humm..." Since it had to do with airplanes, I bought it. It wasn't until I got it home and was looking for a place to hang it that I realized how close these two items were in the film.

Here, I've put the two side-by-side. To get a better feel for them, click on the image and make your own comparisons. Frankly, I simply don't understand why Disney didn't pick a better image for their "x of 2,500" serigraph. But it does underscore the individuality involved in making artistic decisions.

So, that's it. That's my story about making buy decisions. I didn't know much about the artwork when I started and I don't think I've learned too much more over the years. But I do know that I like what I've bought and I don't care if I ever sell it. In thinking about it, I'm not sure my days would start off the same if I didn't have Mickey greeting me at my coffee pot...

"Mickey's Trailer" (1938)


  1. Thanks for sharing images from your collection.
    You got some really, really great stuff.
    I'll make sure to visit your blog often!

  2. excellent post, you pretty much summed up what most collectors feel. Personally I only ever buy cels which I feel, says something important about myself. I love baking, and I have been holding out for a cel of the tall blue cake which Fauna attempts to bake in Sleeping Beauty. I'm finally found a cel of Fauna waving her wand over the Tall Blue cake, I'm so happy! =)