The Mouse in the Auction House: The Collection of Disney Animation Cels


Twenty-four images.

In the context of art collecting, this number would already raise some questions. What is the relation of the images to each other? What is the collector’s intent and choice of display? Yet the idea of a coherent whole in a collection never replaces the idea that we can contemplate one of these twenty-four images on its own.

Twenty-four images in the context of animation is a different matter. They are what is necessary to create one second of animated film. Animation celluloids, or ‘cels’, are the transparent sheets on which a character is drawn and painted before being photographed against the background of the scene. This process is painstakingly repeated with thousands of these cels, to create approximately one hour of film. None of the images are meant to stand out from the rest – instead, they are purposefully meant give the impression of a dynamic continuity. We do not look at images, but an entire experience complemented by voices and music.

Now visualize a classic Mickey Mouse cartoon such as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, from the Disney’s 1940 animated feature Fantasia. Imagine freezing the film on a particular frame…which would be worth 35 250 dollars. Far from a mere speculation, this precisely what happened to an animation cel from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, sold at Sotheby’s in June 2000.

This is not an exceptional occurrence. Indeed, ever since the 1980s, the collecting of animation cels at a high price, particularly Disney animation artwork, has become important for large auction houses such as Sothebys’ or Christies’. Items that were sold for five dollars by Disney art galleries increasingly became more valuable and rare.

What do collectors truly value through the collection of these cels? Why collect images that were not even meant to be viewed outside of a sequence of images, never separated from sound and action?

It could be the appreciation of the complexity and beauty of the creation of an animation film, represented through a mere cel like a single stone from a great cathedral. The comparison with a cathedral is not as fanciful as it first appears. The amount of people involved in the creation of an animated film is immense, and they shall remain largely anonymous to non-specialists in the field.

This single cel representing Mickey in Fantasia evidently shows this problem of “authorship”: although the idea of Mickey as the Apprentice originated from Disney, his appearance is the result of the work of the animator Fred Moore, who created a new character design for Mickey,  under the supervision of the animation director Perce Pearce for the entire sequence of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”…which was then animated by  Les Clark.

Yet these names are generally forgotten in the process. Two words remain to explain the appeal to a collector: “Disney” and “Mickey.” For Pierre Lambert, animator and writer on the subject, and an Animation Art Consultant at Christies’ at the time of his interview by Deborah Reber in 1997, the animation cel has its own set of criteria that can influence its price and by whom it is collected. The name of the studio is obviously crucial: Disney, as one of the most famous and oldest animation studios, monopolizes the market.

Yet, the character appearing in the image is just as important in determining value. Do collectors of Rubens care more about the god or allegory that appears in the painting than the name of the artist? It is not likely. However, cartoon characters – modern-day icons and “gods” of popular culture – still have a hierarchy that is meaningful to collectors.

Yet the most important element in the collecting of animation is for me, that of nostalgia. The fact that the animated feature entirely drawn by hand ceased to be used in the beginning of the 1990s is directly related to the explosion of the value of animation cels for collectors. The most masterful animated features now use entirely digital animation, or combine hand-drawn animation with modern technology; the idea, therefore, of looking at a piece of a tradition that is now extinct is a powerful one.

Yet the nostalgia extends beyond that of the love for a craft. If the tastes and interests of collectors of Modernist art are those that they have acquired through time, the collector of animation cels is returning to the world of wonder and emotion that he experienced as a child, and celebrating these memories by acquiring one amongst thousands of images that made this experience possible. Just as the single cel captures a movement frozen for ever, the collector attempts to capture that moment that made a part of his childhood magical, making him, in the words of Pierre Lambert, “a child who never grew up.”

Originally published in the Edgar Wind Journal “Collecting” issue, June 2012, Oxford

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