Geppi's Gold: 'I Love This Stuff'

January 27, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

One of Steve Geppi's favorite paintings shows Scrooge McDuck hefting coins in his private gold mine. Tonight, Mr. Geppi will open his own gold mine. Mr. Geppi, 45, the world's leading distributor of comics and related material, has invited 1,000 of his best friends for the opening of Diamond International Galleries, a combination museum and comic art gallery.

Mr. Geppi calls the gallery the "Vault" because he has been amassing material for 21 years with the aim of exhibiting it some day. Now it's happening.

"Collectors will be coming from all over, and it's fun to share it with people. I love this stuff," he said.

With 3,400 square feet of exhibition space and 3,800 square feet of offices, the gallery has been a work in progress for more than a year on the fourth floor of the company's Timonium offices.

On display are comic books -- most of them rare and worth thousands of dollars -- along with animation cels, original drawings and paintings of comic characters, comics-related toys and premiums and movie art and posters.

"It has been my dream since I started," Mr. Geppi said yesterday. "As a serious collector myself, I have been extremely dissatisfied with the availability of collectibles as well as the lack of reliable expertise and guidance.

"That's why I'm opening the gallery."

Even so, he said, what's displayed on the walls and in glass cases is only a small part of the total collection.

Although the prices are high because of the objects' rarity, most of the displays recall childhood memories -- particularly of an era when comic books cost a dime -- and Mr. Geppi said he wants people to reminisce about the days when "I had one of those."

After tonight's grand opening -- which will have a 1930s theme -- the gallery will available to visitors by appointment.

Comic book scholars will also have access to a research library with more than 20,000 bound comic books which Mr. Geppi has collected from publishers over the years.

"This is a one-stop Mecca designed to house the creme de la creme of comic collectibles, the art form itself," Mr. Geppi added while aides rushed in and out and opening night preparations raced along.

The most expensive pieces for sale are an animation cel on its original watercolor background of the Wicked Witch in Disney's 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs -- a steal at $150,000 -- and Marvel Comics No. 1, of November 1939, which introduced the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner -- yours for $100,000.

Positively not for sale, however, is the Scrooge McDuck gold-mine painting, entitled "Rich Finds at Inventory Time," which Mr. Geppi commissioned from Carl Barks, who created the character during his years as Disney artist from 1942 to 1966.

In launching the gallery, Mr. Geppi also pays homage to The Yellow Kid, who made his debut on February 17, 1895 and was the first comic character in the modern sense.

The gallery commissioned a figurine of the floppy-eared Kid in a 100-copy limited edition in bronze and a 25-copy edition in gold-leafed bronze.

The figures are priced at $1,995 and $3,500, and even at those prices, they'll go fast, Mr. Geppi said.

"The molds have been destroyed and there are no artist's or publisher's proofs," he added.

Meanwhile, Mr. Geppi, who is also publisher of Baltimore magazine and part owner of the Orioles, has donated the "crown jewels" of cartoon art -- the earliest known drawings of Mickey and Minnie Mouse -- to the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Fla.

The six panels and pencil drawings were done in 1927 by celebrated Disney artist Ub Iwerks as the story board for "Plane Crazy," the first Mickey Mouse cartoon.

Appointments for the comic book museum and gallery are available by telephone at (410) 560-7112, Ext. 451.

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