Batman came to the rescue and saved the first-ever comic-book and comic-art auction from feared disaster. A copy of the comic book in which Batman first appeared, Detective Comics No. 27 (May 1939), in fine condition, sold for $55,000 at Sotheby's Dec. 18, 1991, adding wham! bang! punch! to the auction and sending people to their attics in search of rare old comics.
The buyer, Harold Anderson of Florence, Ala., battled a phone bidder for the Batman prize. Mr. Anderson was the sale's real hero, sweeping up a total of 33 lots for a little more than $270,000. He said he would add the comics to his "traveling museum of collectibles."
"My baseball cards are touring Wal-Mart stores now, and the comics also will go on tour," Mr. Anderson said, after the morning session of the day-long sale. Mr. Anderson heads a company that packages and distributes baseball cards and comic books to chain stores throughout the country.
Sitting near the front of Sotheby's New York City salesroom, Mr. Anderson often was the only person bidding. His competition: the auction reserves, the confidential minimum amounts acceptable to the consignors. He bought most of the lots at or below their low estimates. Mr. Anderson paid $29,700, the low estimate, for the rare Action Comics No. 1 (June 1938) in which Superman first appeared, and $29,600 for Marvel Comics No. 1 (November 1939) which features the first appearance of the Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, the Angel and Kazar, the first Tarzan clone.
The latter may have been a bargain; it had been estimated to bring $40,000 to $80,000. On the other hand, the $55,000 price paid for Batman's debut issue was double its low estimate and a record for that comic book in fine condition.
"It's desirable because it's unrestored," commented Stephen Fishler of Metropolis, a mail-order comics business in New York, about Detective Comics No. 27. "I sold one in near-mint condition for $80,000 two years ago," he volunteered.
Mr. Fishler was one of the more than 400 spectators watching to see how well comic books would do at auction. They are rarely auctioned because their value depends largely on condition, and grading is subjective and not yet standardized. Generally, old comic books are sold throughout the country at conventions, in shops and by mail order from dealers' catalogs, usually with a return policy. Prices often are guided by those published in "The Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide 1991-1992," 21st edition, by Robert M. Overstreet (the House of Collectibles, 1991, $15).
Sotheby's sale was organized by Jerry N. Weist, who has run a comic-book store called the Million Year Picnic in Cambridge, Mass., for 18 years. "I decided it was time for comic books and comic art to have the cachet and publicity of a Sotheby's sale," Mr. Weist said. "They are so American, and they are rare because so many were thrown out. If Sotheby's can auction baseball cards successfully, why not comic books?" Mr. Weist rounded up consignments for the auction from friends, collectors, dealers and artists who drew the comics, as well as some from his own collection.
The sale was not the blockbuster Mr. Weist had hoped for, but it was far from a disappointment. The recession and aggressive estimates deterred some bidders. The overall result: 265 lots sold for a total of $1.2 million, including the 10-percent commission Sotheby's charges buy ers, well below the total $1.5 to $2 million presale estimate. Nearly one-quarter of the lots on the block failed to attract buyers. Nevertheless, dealers, collectors and Sotheby's proclaimed the auction a respectable first try and predicted sales would be scheduled.
The hardcover catalog presented a short history of comic books, which were born in the early 1930s out of the marriage of newspaper comic strips and pulp-fiction books. The sale included virtually all the high points of comic history, beginning with a pen-and-ink illustration by R. F. Outcault, credited with creating the first newspaper comic strip, "Yellow Kid," published in a Hearst newspaper in the 1890s. A copy of the first comic book, a collection of Sunday strips from 1933 called "Funnies on Parade," sold to Mr. Anderson for $4,675. Only 50 copies of this Procter & Gamble Co. giveaway are known to survive.
A rough cover design for an early issue of Marvel comics, drawn by Bill Everett in 1939 but never published, fetched $15,400 from a man in a Spandex Spider-Man suit who outbid a lawyer from Hartford, Conn., wearing khakis and a crew-neck sweater. Spider-Man said he was bidding for his publisher, Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc., the history of which is hot off the press in Les Daniels' hardcover book, "Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics" (Abrams, 1991, $45).
High prices were paid for very recent original comic art. Jim Lee's drawings for the Complete Marvel Comics X-Men No. 1 (August 1991) -- 37 pages plus pinups and the cover -- fetched $44,000. The buyer, dealer Bill Woo, also paid $42,900 for 36 pages of Robert Leifeld's art work for the Complete Marvel Comics X-Force No. 1 (July 1991).
"These are the books that made history," Mr. Woo said, noting that X-Force sold 3.1 million copies and X-Men broke records selling 6 million copies. Mr. Woo said he bought for investment and to promote his store, Comicmania, in Stanton, Del. "The artists have promised they will visit my shop and sign their comic books."