Area collector's Mickey Mouse 'find' going to Rome for Disney celebration Sketches insured for $3 million

November 24, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

TC The six plain gold frames, each containing a foot-square piece of paper divided into six small panels of pencil sketches, were lifted from their display easels in a Timonium office and wrapped as tenderly as artwork by Leonardo or Michelangelo.

The recently discovered drawings by Ub Iwerks are in their own way just as rare and valuable as old masters -- Lloyds of London has insured them for $3 million.

Ub Iwerks?

He isn't exactly a household name, but his subject is, for these are the earliest known representations of the world's most famous rodent, Mickey Mouse, who turns 65 this year.

The six paper panels Mr. Iwerks drew in 1928 form the storyboard for "Plane Crazy," the first Mickey Mouse cartoon ever produced -- although it was the third one to be released. Until Timonium-based comic book magnate Stephen A. Geppi bought them earlier this year, their existence was unknown.

The story of Mickey Mouse's creation has changed with time. For many years the company gave credit only to Walt Disney, but in recent years both men have been acknowledged as Mickey's creator.

Mr. Iwerks was a childhood friend and business partner of Walt Disney. He followed Disney to California from Kansas City and did the drawings for the early Disney cartoons.

The public debut of the "Plane Crazy" drawings will not be in the United States, however. They were packed yesterday for a flight to Italy for unveiling Dec. 1 in Rome, where Disney is celebrating 60 years of "Topolino," as Mickey is known there, with the largest Disney retrospective ever presented in Europe.

Mr. Geppi, 43, the comic book and collectibles dealer who bought the drawings "for the medium six figures" last summer, has lent them for the exhibit and is still debating whether to fly to Rome for the opening.

Mr. Geppi said it all began early this year when a New York art dealer said a representative of the estate of a former Disney publicist had contacted him about the six unmounted pieces of paper.

"I'm a die-hard collector and I just flipped," Mr. Geppi said. "I remember saying to myself, 'Am I allowed to own this?' Disney is a billion-dollar business, and I've got the mouse that built it. Am I allowed to own it?

"They lay in somebody's drawer for 65 years, and now the biggest kick I get is showing them to someone. It's fun to own the first appearance of Mickey Mouse, but it's nice to let 260 million people see it, too."

The Disney Studios exhibition had already been long-planned when the "Plane Crazy" drawings surfaced. Their discovery added just the right fillip to the exhibition and, although Mr. Geppi said he is pleased to lend them, the two months they will be gone "are already too long for me."

A Baltimore native who grew up in Little Italy, Mr. Geppi has built the country's largest distributorship of comic books, baseball cards and similar collectibles. He is also a baseball fanatic and is part of the new Orioles ownership group. A self-described Peter Pan, Mr. Geppi said he is having too much fun to ever grow up.

But he has a grown-up collection of comic books, cartoon art and collectibles that includes some of the rarest items in the field.

Like most collectors, Mr. Geppi wants to share his things. So he has engaged an old friend and fellow collector, John K. Snyder, a former U.S. deputy undersecretary of commerce, to prepare a museum and gallery of pop culture on the fourth floor of their Timonium building to house the vast collection. Mr. Snyder values the collection at $15 million.

"Steve says I'm having all the fun now," Mr. Snyder said. "He'd rather be doing this but he has to take care of the business."

Eventually, Mr. Geppi said, the gallery will offer for sale and trade items from the upper-end of the comics and cartoon collectibles market and the museum will display "the creme de la creme" and will be available to the public by appointment.

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