Looney Tunes tickling serious fancies

May 30, 1991|By Neil A. Grauer | Neil A. Grauer,Special to The Evening Sun

IF Bugs Bunny were to ask you today "What's up, Doc?", you could readily reply: "the price of your picture."

The growing respectability and rising costs of animation art have drawn the attention of prestigious auction houses, galleries, collectors -- and museums.

Sunday, the Baltimore Museum of Art will open its first-ever exhibition of animation artwork, "That's All Folks!" It will feature original animation drawings and film selections from Warner Bros. cartoons starring Bugs and his eternal nemesis, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, the Road Runner and his perpetual pursuer, Wile E. Coyote.

Chuck Jones, the creator of the "Road Runner" series and Academy Award-winning director of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and Pepe Le Pew cartoons, responds with wonder when asked if he ever imagined his handiwork would find its way onto museum walls.

"Hardly. I would have thought the likelihood of such a thing

happening would be as remote as putting a man on the moon," he says drolly, citing another fantasy of the 1930s, '40s and '50s that improbably came to pass.

"And it would have been a bad thing if I had imagined it," adds the 78-year-old cartoonist during a telephone interview from his home in Southern California. "That would be like the writer who said he couldn't sell anything, so he was writing for posterity."

"We were very fortunate. We enjoyed what we were doing and got paid for it."

What Jones and his fellow animators and cartoon directors did was come up with the characters and plots for the classic, six-minute Warner Bros. epics featuring Bugs and his merry companions. The directors and chief animators came up with rough sketches of the film's story, then supervised the creation of thousands of pencil, pen and ink animation drawings that then were traced onto celluloid sheets (called "cels' for short). These transparent cels were hand-painted in bright colors on the reverse side, then photographed one-by-one with foreground cels and watercolor backgrounds.

Once these "production cels" were photographed with a stop-action movie camera, they were deemed recyclable or disposable. Originally painted on highly flammable cellulose nitrate (more modern cels are cellulose acetate), the old cels were considered a fire hazard if stored too long, so many simply were destroyed. Others were washed clean and re-used.

Consequently, the number of surviving cels from vintage cartoons of the '30s, '40s and early '50s is relatively small -- and the value of them has risen accordingly. What with such deep-pocketed collectors as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and buyers from Japan, Europe and elsewhere joining the bidders at twice-yearly sales held by such auction houses as Christie's and Sotheby's, price tags have shot up tenfold in the past decade or so.

A cel from such classic Disney films as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Bambi" and "Dumbo" routinely sell for between $5,000 to $20,000 -- and up to double or triple that sum when accompanied by original background painting. Twenty years ago, visitors to Disneyland could buy a cel from "Peter Pan" or "Sleeping Beauty" for as little as $1.50. Now such cels cost hundreds of dollars.

The highest auction price ever paid for a single cel was $286,000, fetched at a 1989 Christie's auction by a black-and-white cel from "The Orphans' Benefit," a 1934 Disney cartoon starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Last year, another cel from the same cartoon reportedly sold for $450,000 in a private transaction.

Ironically, although Chuck Jones says he and other animator/directors at Warner Bros. "saved everything," the studio considered its mountain of animation art a storage problem once the animation division was closed in the mid-1960s. So they trashed everything. As a result, original Warner Bros. production cels -- the kind that will be on display at the BMA -- actually are rarer than Disney cels, although Disney remains the Cadillac of animation art as far as private collectors are concerned.

The Warner cels at the BMA are hardly chopped liver, however. Joshua Arfer, head of animation art sales at Christie's, says that each of them would be worth thousands of dollars.

Gordon Becker, a local collector of animation cels, says he has "never really purchased any piece of art as an investment."

"It's been because I like it. And they're fun."

Becker, 57, is president of Becker Enterprises, which specializes in developing three-dimensional animated displays featuring well-known cartoon characters from Disney and other sources. Collecting animation cels therefore has "kind of a built-in interest for me," he says.

"I consider them art, very definitely so. They're another example of the drawn line. The fact that the subject matter is cartoon just gives it more of a specific meaning."

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