Owning part of your dream – collecting animation art

Father Robert Murphy tells of his interest in collecting animation art.

Fr. Bob Murphy displays some of his collection.

Like so many Americans of my generation (I was born in 1948), my introduction to animation came from television. As a child, I would rush home to watch The Mickey Mouse Club on television after school. This programme featured the low vaudeville of the Mousketeers, serial adventures (Spin and Marty; The Hardy Boys, etc); and, most importantly for me, classic Disney cartoon shorts. Here I was introduced to the wonderful ‘Silly Symphony’ series which continues to be some of my favourite Disney work.

The first theatrical Disney film that I remember attending was Peter Pan followed by a reissue of Fantasia. I was hooked! In the parlance of a child: I loved cartoons! Television introduced us to other forms of animation as well: the smart-alec Chuck Jones cartoons from Warner Brothers of Road Runner and Bugs Bunny; the slickly packaged Hanna-Barbera cartoons with the funny voices of Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear; and the off-the-wall humour of Jay Ward and Bill Scott with Rocky and Bullwinkle. It was, however, the Disney films that I felt most at home with and for which I formed the deepest affection.

My first trip to Disneyland in Los Angeles was the summer of 1965. It was a hot summer in more ways than one: race riots were erupting around the nation and, while we were lost in Los Angeles, the slums of Watts went up in flames. The huge clouds of smoke were clearly visible from our motel in Santa Monica. The Magic Kingdom, however, was far away from the gathering storm clouds of racial unrest.

While waiting for my sister to come back from the Peter Pan ride, I wandered into one of the stores on Main Street called The Art Market and there before me were cels! I had no idea what I was looking at except that I had some vague idea that these were used in the making of cartoons. The cels were cut-down and mounted in cheap cardboard frames. They were quite reasonable: $5 and up. It reminded me of looking at snap shots of old friends: each caught by the camera in funny poses, often with their heads turned away or an arm in front of a face. Fate intervened before I could make a purchase. My sister was eager to catch the next ride and I was whisked off with her in tow. It would be many years before I would see a Disney cel again.

In the years that followed, I continued my interest in Disney but the thought of collecting any of the animation cels (or even the possibility of such) faded. It was while I was flipping through a copy of Overstreets Guide to Comics that I noticed an ad from ‘Cartoon Carnival’ which read: “Original Walt Disney art.” I remembered those cut-down cels
with their cardboard frames at Disneyland some 14 years before, picked up the phone and called. The phone was answered by the owner, Stuart Reisbord.

Reisbord graduated from the Phildelphia College of Arts in 1953. After several years in the military, he went into the tyre business. His real interest, however, was in comic art. His interest grew to such proportions – he presently had a collection of almost 8,000 pieces of comic art – that he left the tyre business and went into the comic art business full-time. This coincided with the Disney Studios Art programme which was releasing to select galleries and dealers laminated cels from their later features such as Jungle Book, Robin Hood, Winnie the Pooh, Aristocats, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and TV characters such as Ludwig Von Drake.

I talked to Stuart for the better part of an hour and by the time our phone conversation was over I had not only made a new and knowledgeable friend, but had purchased my first Disney cel: a two-cel set up of Winnie the Pooh and Rabbit. It was through Stuart that I began to learn about the state of animation art collecting as well as its history.

It was fascinating to learn, for example, that until the appearance of Disney’s Snow White, most of the animation art was either destroyed, given away to visitors or taken home by the animators themselves. There is a famous story of a warehouse full of Warner Brothers animation cels, drawings, etc. that was burned to make way for storage space.

Disney, no slouch at merchandising his famous Mouse and the rest of his cartoon friends, took notice when, in the late l930s art dealer Guthrie Sayre Courvoisier suggested that Disney was simply throwing away profits by not merchandising the cels and drawings that had been so lovingly done. Disney gave Courvoisier the go-ahead and soon museums, prestigious art galleries, and private collectors were proudly displaying the Disney treasuries. Courvoisier had local artists add air-brushed backgrounds and water-coloured scenes to bring perspective and dimension to the pieces of art. Sales were amazing even in depression-ridden America.

Today, it is hard to find an older Disney cel that doesn’t display the Courvoisier sticker on the back. It is also interesting to note that Disney continues to affix the same lable on the back of today’s artwork as it did 50 years ago, for Courvoisier, telling how animation is done and that “Walt Disney originals are included in many important Museums and private collections.” Notable among these are; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; William Rock-hill Nelson Gallery, Kansas City, Mo.; Phillips Memorial Gallery, Washington D.C.; San Francisco Museum of Art; Honolulu Academy of Arts, etc.

I checked with the William Rockhill Nelson Art Gallery here in my hometown of Kansas City and was rather haughtily told by one individual that he had tracked acquisitions for over 30 years and that there was no Disney art present; I have visions of some rare Snow White cel gathering mildew in the art gallery’s basement but have not been able to gain access to prove my theory.

The Courvoisier retailing of Disney artwork seems to have had about a ten year run but by the late 1940s Disney cels and drawings were nowhere to be found unless you were lucky enough to work for the Studio or had received a cel or drawing on a VIP tour of the Studio. It was the opening of Disneyland that revived the sale of Disney cels. Here a customer could pick up (quite cheaply) cels from the current Disney features and television cartoon efforts. The early and classic Disney features, Snow White, Dumbo, Fantasia, etc, that once had been the greatest sellers for Courvoisier were not available at any price. The Disneyland merchandising of cels also seemed to have about a 10-year run before they were no longer offered in the Park.

It was the early 1970s that saw a resurgence of interest in Disney art. Many young collectors in the Los Angeles area who haunted comic conventions and old animators’ homes, began to go from hobby to business as interest in the Disney artwork increased. This was also spurred on by the more prestigious Art Galleries in the country and in Great Britain offering Disney cels and drawings in their auctions.

Christie’s November 11986 auction broke all records for a Disney cel, when one of the evil witch from Snow White dipping an apple in poison, brought $30,800! Granted that this was two full celluloids, applied to a master background, it was still an unheard of price. One wonders whether the price of animation art has peaked or whether we will see even higher prices.

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