Collectors target wartime buddies from Disney Studio


November 07, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers Solis-Cohen Enterprises Peter R. Solis-Cohen contributed to this story.

Although veteran collectors, dealers and auctioneers always are battling to conquer new fields, this Veterans' Day some are targeting old allies and finding that Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Goofy, Jiminy Cricket and the corps of Disney characters are perennial heroes. But rather than setting their sights just on Disney animation "cels" and vintage wind-up toys in which there already has been explosive growth in demand and prices, they're stalking an overlooked corner of "Disneyana:" World War II military insignia designed by the Walt Disney Studio.

"Here's a reasonably large body of Disneyana that . . . was totally unknown. It's hard to conceive of turning up such a treasure trove," says Walton Rawls of Atlanta, author of a surprise-filled nostalgic book, "Disney Dons Dogtags," (Abbeville Press, 1992, $21.95), which illustrates and describes the history of humorous and patriotic military insignia that Disney artists designed for free to support the war effort.

"The book has made collectors more aware of these insignia, but it hasn't made them any easier to find," long-time Disneyana collector George Hattersley, of Newtown Square, Pa., says wistfully. "Unfortunately, the book's great color illustrations are as close as an average collector might come to seeing them."

"The insignia are pretty wonderful representations of Disney characters in unusual settings, such as Dumbo swooping down from the sky holding torpedoes," says auctioneer and dealer Howard Lowery of Burbank, Calif., a specialist in fine animation art, who occasionally sells original watercolors of Disney's military insignia. "I always enjoy having them but don't get them often enough," he adds. In August, Mr. Lowery sold a 10-by-7-inch original watercolor of Horace Horsecollar (one of Mickey's earliest companions) riding a sea horse in full charge, waving a flag and carrying a pickax. It's the insignia of the 203rd Engineers' Combat Battalion and fetched $1,430 at auction.

Price determinants

Design, condition, and the character(s) featured are the major determinants of price, Mr. Lowery says. Watercolors depicting recognizable Disney characters typically com

mand about $1,000 to $3,000 each at auction if in good condition, while "generic characters" cost about $700 to $1,000 per insignia.

In his mail and phone-bid auction closing Nov. 16 and 17, Ted Hake, of Hake's Americana and Collectibles, in York, Pa., is offering eight wartime matchbooks, each featuring a different Disney military insignia. They're expected to fetch about $20 per matchbook. (Last year, Mr. Lowery sold for $522.50 a set of 48 Pepsi Cola matchbooks featuring Disney military insignia.)

Among the insignia illustrated in "Disney Dons Dogtags," are those of the 60th Air Depot Group, featuring Pinocchio tinkering with tools and paste to repair a damaged model airplane; USS Mercy, depicting Snow White tucking a bandaged dwarf into a boat-shaped bed marked with a Red Cross; Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Hutchinson, Kansas, showing a uniformed Jiminy Cricket riding an aircraft that's dangling an anchor; USAF Hospital, Harmon Air Force Base, featuring Mickey Mouse marching astride a Red Cross with a medical bag in one hand and a syringe slung over his shoulder like a rifle; Seventh Photographic Reconnaissance Squad, Colorado Springs Army Air Force Base, featuring Pluto staring down from a cloud, a camera at the ready; and the 531st Bombardment Squadron, depicting Donald Duck holding a bomb in one hand and raising the other in a fist.

These insignia "differ from other Disney works which generally aren't warlike and aggressive," says Mr. Rawls. Yet, he adds, even for military insignia, Disney relied on characterization, superb design, and humor -- rather than violent images -- to achieve graphic victories.

Veterans who served in World War II remember these insignia proudly and fondly, according to Robert Tieman, of the Walt Disney Archives. "A unit's Disney insignia is what distinguished them from others," he says. Although now they're seen as collectibles and nostalgic relics, "During the war they boosted morale, reminding the guys overseas of home and what they were fighting for," Mr. Tieman says.

According to Mr. Rawls, military insignia date at least to the middle ages. Distinctive heraldic devices helped knights determine who was friend and who was foe, and by World War I, these distinctive images even were emblazoned on new tools of war, such as fighter planes.

Requests to the studio

Nobody's sure when the first request arrived at the Disney Studio, in Burbank, Calif., for its famed artists to create an insignia for a military unit. It's assumed that it was quite early in World War II and may have come from a field commander. Before long, according to Mr. Tieman, commanding officers, unit publicity personnel and officers in charge of morale started writing letters to Disney basically saying: "We've heard that you've done this in the past, would you do it for us too?"

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