First appearances of Batman and Superman among treasures at auction

December 19, 1991|By New York Times

NEW YORK -- The superhero at Sotheby's first auction of comic books yesterday was Harold M. Anderson, the owner of a traveling museum of baseball memorabilia based in Florence, Ala.

Anderson bought many of the most important properties and paid a record price at auction for a comic book with his $55,000 purchase of a copy of Detective 27, the 1939 issue in which Batman appeared for the first time.

The price Anderson paid for Detective 27 far exceeded Sotheby's top estimate of $28,000. It was the exception at this sale, in which many works went unsold and many others brought prices below Sotheby's expectations. In an auction of 362 items, 265 were sold for a total of $1.2 million, below the house estimate of $1.4 million to $2 million.

"I think comic books are on the ground floor of an explosive market," Anderson said minutes after he acquired the rarity, one of about 100 copies of this issue known to survive.

"We have a baseball traveling museum and, compared to baseball memorabilia, comic books are somewhat under-priced right now."

Anderson is the president and owner of Treat Co. in Florence, operator of the baseball museum, which shows its exhibits in Wal-Mart stores. He said he intended to expand the museum's displays to includeomic books.

Most of the other major comic-book properties in the sale were also acquired by Anderson. He bought many of the first issues of comic books, paying $29,700 for a copy of Action No. 1 from 1938, a 10-cent comic book in which Superman made his debut.

And he spent $28,600 for a first-issue copy of Marvel Comics from 1939, showing Human Torch on the cover. Sotheby's had estimated it would sell for $40,000 to $80,000.

The highest prices paid at the sale were for material from the so-called Golden Age of comic books, which began in June 1938 when Superman made his debut on the cover of Action Comics No. 1.

That era and the 1960s, which introduced a new breed of flawed and self-doubting superheroes like Spider-Man, dominated the offerings in Sotheby's sale. Images of the superheroes, including that of Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Spider-Man, Flash and the Hulk, fared well yesterday.

Toward the end of the sale, at which he spent $229,845 for 21 items, Anderson said that not all of his money went for superheroes. He spent $4,675 for a copy of "Funnies on Parade," a 1933 compendium of newspaper comic strips featuring characters like Popeye and Mutt and Jeff. "It was one of the neatest things I bought," he said.

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