Published: March 13, 2018
With Hollywood executives doing a remarkable job at keeping superhero movies on the cinema marquees, the surge in interest, both new and old, has led back to the place where it all began: comics. Since the turn of the Twentieth Century, the comic market has surged, with rare and key issues fetching more with every passing year. Barry Sandoval is the director of operations for Heritage Auctions’ comic department, which last year churned out more than $45 million in sales across vintage comics, original comic art and animation art. The firm has announced its first European comic sale to take place on June 2 in the Netherlands, so we tracked Sandoval down to learn about that and to get his take on the broader market.
What are some of the main differences between American and European comics?
Superheroes are the reigning genre in American comics, whereas in European comics it’s more of a diverse mix. The traditional comic book in the United States is 32 pages, staple bound and cheaply printed – though that has been changing in recent years – whereas more deluxe formats have been around longer in Europe.
And what about public perception? Are comics thought of differently by Europeans?
Comics as an art form gained mainstream respect “across the pond” much earlier than they did in the United States. For instance, you will hear French collectors refer to comics as the “ninth art,” the first eight being painting, music, cinema, etc. We’re still not at that point in the United States, obviously.
I was in the room when you sold Robert Crumb’s original cover art for Fritz The Cat, which broke the record for a work of American comic art at $717,000. Why is Robert Crumb so collectable?
Whole books have been written about that. I think first and foremost it’s his talent – there were several “underground” artists who made an impact, but he was and is the most gifted of any of them, by far. Combine that with being completely irreverent and having unlimited creativity.
The comic and comic art market is surging. Why do you think that is?
Take the first appearance of Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15. A lot of surviving copies are in “Good” condition, which is a bit of a misnomer since a “Good” is a 2 on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest possible grade. When Heritage expanded into comics in 2001, that issue in that grade was worth around $1,000. Five or six years after that it was $2,000, in 2013 it was $4,000-5,000, and currently it trades for around $12,000. That’s for a beat-up copy of a comic that’s not rare by any means. And high-grade copies of that comic can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
To take another example, our first auction in 2001 had four lots that sold for $10,000 or more. Our last auction in 2017 had 171 such lots, 14 of which sold for more than $100,000.
I think the raft of comic book-related movies and TV shows has been one of the main factors contributing to this. It elevates the material to the level of pop culture collectibles rather than something that is limited to the comic hobbyist.
Your department has a number of other records for comic and comic art. Tell us about the top three.
Focusing on some from the last couple of years, I should mention the Frank Frazetta “At the Earth’s Core” cover painting. Frazetta was a staggering talent. It’s amazing to see an original in person, let alone own one, and this one passed the million-dollar mark at $1,075,500.
We were so impressed by the Action Comics #1 we sold in 2016 that we wrote an entire catalog devoted to this one item. It was just a really attractive copy of the most desirable comic in the hobby, the first appearance of Superman. It brought $956,000.
And another piece I would mention is the page that had the first appearance of Wolverine. Not only is it the memorable debut of one of the greatest characters, the page had been locked away in a collection for decades and nobody knew if the art even still existed until the day we announced it. That sold for $657,250.
Apart from your live sales, your department has found success in weekly online sales. Tell us about those.
Our Sunday Internet Comics Auctions at HA.com average $200,000 week in and week out. Each week it’s 800 lots of comic books, comic art and animation art with no reserves and no minimum bids. All of the art has been inspected by our experts. Many of the comics have been certified by third-party grading services CGC or CBCS. The rest of the comics have been graded by my colleagues and me, and we accept returns on those if the buyer disagrees with the grade. All of this means there are no “gotchas” for the bidder as one would encounter on eBay or elsewhere.
By the way, there’s one thing we started doing 10-plus years ago that no other comic seller does to this day: in each lot description of a certified comic, we state how many better copies are known to exist. Even in an example of The Amazing Spider-Man #300 where literally thousands of copies have been graded higher. It’s all part of respecting bidders’ time by giving them complete information, and they thank us for it by bidding aggressively every week.
You sell 40,000 lots a year, so the assumption is that you have a bed under your desk. Is it tough to keep up with that volume?
It’s a handful, but luckily a large portion of our team has been with us ten years or more, which helps tremendously.
Any predictions for the future?
I don’t have a crystal ball, but I am interested to see how much further animation art will develop in the coming years. There are still some people who don’t have a favorite comic book character, but who doesn’t have a favorite childhood cartoon? Plus, while iconic comic book art tends to reach the six-figure range, you can get wonderful, significant animation pieces for $15,000. At least for now…
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