Collectors find old cartoon 'cels' are a good buy

You've seen them in the movies. You've seen them in museums. You may have even seen them in the malls. Now you can see them on your walls.

Animation art is in. In galleries and stores around South Florida, Daffy Duck is nose to nose with Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny is ogling the Lion King, Rocky the Flying Squirrel is uneasily eyeing Betty Boop and George Jetson, as usual, looks overwhelmed.


Take Marcus Jewelers and Gallery in West Palm Beach, Fla. Animation cels are not ordinarily found in bountiful display on jewelry store walls, but then most jewelry store owners don't collect animation.

Slightly more than five years ago, JoAnn and Jeff Marcus bought a few pieces of animation art for themselves, then decided that if they were interested, there might be a lot more people interested as well. They broadened their store's stock to include animation art.


"We found out very quickly that collecting animation is an addiction, a hoarding instinct," says JoAnn.

What started out as a hobby turned into a subsidiary business. The Marcuses now run three additional animation galleries: Mizner Park in Boca Raton, Fla., Cocowalk in Miami's Coconut Grove and a store in Tampa. Cels can also be found in the Disney and Warner Bros. stores in area malls.

"It's on fire," says Jeff Marcus. "We're projecting several new locations in the next year."

Adds JoAnn, "It's art you can understand."

Beyond that, it's art with connotations of exuberance, pleasure and happy memories.

A few years ago, The Wall Street Journal touted animation art as "the art of the '90s," and while there was undoubtedly a touch of marketing hype in that, there's also a sizable piece of truth.

Animated movies used to be made by inking and coloring 24 individual pictures for every second of film. These pictures were on clear pieces of celluloid -- hence the diminutive "cel" -- through which the painted backgrounds can be seen. An animation cel with background -- a complete frame, 1/24th of a second of the completed film -- is worth far more than the cel without the background, probably because, unlike, say, a movie poster, a cel is a piece of the actual film.

The ravages of time and the fact that animation wasn't perceived as an invaluable cultural art form until the last 20 or so years meant that most animation cels disappeared -- tossed out, or wiped clean for re-use, which, in turn, means that those pieces that have survived are worth that much more.


How much more?

The earliest surviving black- and-white cel and background from a 1935 Donald Duck cartoon brought the record amount of $280,000 at auction a few years ago, about 10 times what the entire cartoon cost to make.

The demand for the premium titles has become so intense, hence costly, that Disney and Warner, among others, have gone into the business of making limited-edition reproduction cels. In other words, artists are hired to duplicate a cel designed by a "name" animator/director such as Friz Freleng or Chuck Jones, who then signs them.

A limited-edition Chuck Jones cel titled "Last Chance Saloon" sold for $500 five years ago. if you can find one now, you'll pay upward of $4,000.

The selling of cels from recent smash hits is complicated by the fact that their most memorable scenes -- the ballroom scene in "Beauty and the Beast," for instance -- are essentially done in the computer. Thus, cels from those scenes are cobbled together strictly for the collectors' market.

Animation art has come a long way from the early days of Disneyland, when a 55-gallon drum would hold a quantity of cels from "Sleeping Beauty" or "Peter Pan," available to anyone for the bargain price of $2.


Animation is also drawing respectable attention at museums around the country. It's especially desirable at the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, which made headlines recently when it acquired from a collector 36 of the earliest known pencil drawings of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

"Animation is a major part of the collection," says museum director Fritz Jellinghaus of the facility due to open next year. "Our principal task is to build the museum; we don't have an acquisitions fund or endowment yet. Everything is donated. But Mort and Kathy Walker [Mort draws Beetle Bailey] and I are on our way to L.A. to meet key collectors and people in the animation industry.

"We hope to be a key player in auctions."

The rise in value of movie-oriented collectibles indicates a market where the intrinsic worth of a cel or poster is based on emotional value, rather than on some strictly calibrated judgment of artistic value.

Jeff Marcus says that he's seen anywhere from between 10 percent to 30 percent appreciation a year on some limited edition cels. Some pieces, of course, do better than others.

"I sometimes wonder what will happen to this business when we get out of the recession mentality the country's still in," he adds. "Sometimes, when a price comes out on a piece, we gulp. But it still sells out.


"For instance, Disney came out with a limited edition, 350 cels of Snow White shooing all the dwarfs off to bed. It was $4,500. We gulped, but we ordered 24 of them anyway, 8 or 9 percent of the run. Not one of those pieces was around long enough to be hung on our walls. Now they're selling for $6,000 to $7,000."

Yet not all cels, not even all original cels, are a gilt-edged investment.

San Francisco area collector Mike Glad has a premiere collection -- he currently has an exhibition at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. Among his 4,000 or so pieces is the black and white Donald Duck cel that sold for $280,000. He didn't pay that much. He paid only five figures, and he paid it to the man who paid six figures.