That's Art, Folks
Bugs Bunny, muse? Yes, animation cels have captured the imagination (and dollars) of serious art collectors
By Paul Lukas

(MONEY Magazine) – The term art collector can be intimidating. To most of us it implies a wealth of cultural and historical knowledge, a high-class sophistication bordering on stuffiness, and huge piles of money—in short, a rarefied world that's daunting at best, off-putting at worst.

Ah, but what if you could be an art collector by hanging an image of Elmer Fudd on your wall?

You can if you start collecting animation cels, the hand-painted acetates used to make cartoon movies and TV shows. After being overlooked for generations, cels have caught on with collectors over the past 20 years and now have the cachet and legitimacy—and sometimes the price—of fine art, but without the stodgy cultural baggage. And in the words of Sotheby's Guide to Animation Art, "If you've ever attended a Bugs Bunny festival or rented the video of Dumbo, you've already taken the first step toward becoming an expert."

A quick primer: Animation traditionally is made by painting character illustrations on clear acetate and positioning them sequentially on painted backgrounds. Each illustration is photographed individually to create a film frame, so a single movie can necessitate tens of thousands of character acetates— these are the cels (short for celluloid). Some cels are sold on their own, with the character floating and ungrounded, while others are paired with their background paintings, creating a full scene.

For years cels were viewed as little more than a byproduct. Disney animators used to celebrate a film's completion by spreading cels on a hallway floor and sliding on them, and Disney officials were prepared to destroy the studio's vast art files as recently as 1971, simply because they were too cumbersome (fortunately, an archivist intervened). Animation art didn't hit the big time until 1984, when a former Disney employee's collection was auctioned by Christie's. Other auctions soon followed, and several subsequent developments—the resurgence of Disney's animated film business; the rise of popular cartoon TV shows on Fox, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network; the emergence of the baby boomer nostalgia market—have combined to make animation a hot art genre.

One of the field's experts is Heidi Leigh, who studied fine arts in college and then got a job in 1982 at a New York gallery. "I was the new kid," she recalls, "so they had me work with all the animation art because that was considered the ghetto. And I loved it!" Leigh soon started her own business and now owns Animazing, a leading Manhattan gallery.

"It's real Americana art—fine art that's funny," she says, surrounded by images of Mickey Mouse, Charlie Brown and Winnie the Pooh. "It's totally unpretentious, and you respond to it emotionally. If you have a real, original Warner Bros. production cel, that is literally [like having] the heartbeat of Bugs Bunny. You can watch the cartoon and freeze-frame it on the exact spot where that image was used."

A classic cel like the one Leigh describes can cost thousands of dollars, but some cels go for as little as $75, so there's something for any budget. And there are lots of thematic options: You can collect by studio (Disney, Warner Bros., Hanna-Barbera), by film or show (Snow White, The Flintstones) or by character (Daffy Duck, Bullwinkle, Popeye). If you're into baseball, you can collect cels that depict various characters swinging a bat. Some collectors even specialize in characters from TV commercials, such as Count Chocula and Cap'n Crunch.

That's how Jon Bernhardt, an actuary who owns about 20 cels, got started. "Ten years ago I got a call from a dealer who knew I liked pop culture," he recalls. "What caught my eye was a Quisp cel from a commercial. I thought it was so cool—I had no idea these things existed." His eclectic collection now includes images from The Simpsons, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the old Schoolhouse Rock series.

Like most cel collectors, Bernhardt grew up watching cartoons and enjoys the nostalgia factor. But fans see animation art as more than just kid stuff. "If you have a cel with its original background, it has depth and texture, just like an oil painting," says Mike Hibarger, an electrical engineer with a small collection. "I have one from Yellow Submarine with a beautiful watercolor-and-ink background, and then you put this highly graphic character on it—it's a great combination."

Although the major studios have produced literally millions of cels over the years, some types have become scarce. In addition to all the work that was ruined in those Disney hallway slide-a-thons, many older nitrate cels have deteriorated, others have been discarded (the Warner Bros. archive was decimated after it was deemed a fire hazard), and others were washed clean and reused during World War II because of materials shortages. Meanwhile, most of today's animation, for shows such as The Simpsons and SpongeBob SquarePants, is done digitally, not by hand, so contemporary production cels are rare.

The studios have compensated by issuing limited-edition hand-painted cels specifically for the collectors market. These cels were never used to make a cartoon, but it's a lot easier—and often less expensive—to find a limited-edition Daffy Duck than to track down an actual production version.

Some collectors, like Hibarger, pooh-pooh the limited editions. "Production cels give you a better sense of the process and the history involved, especially if the cel comes with notes and sketches," he says. Other collectors have no problem with limited-edition cels, although everyone seems to agree that they don't increase in value.

Production cels, however, have been appreciating. "The supply is drying up so fast that values are going to go up," says Heidi Leigh of Animazing. There's also talk of an animation museum opening in California in three years, which will tighten the supply further and lend added prestige to the field.

Happily, animation is such a universal touchstone that you don't need esoteric tastes to make a savvy purchase. "Love usually equates with value in this market," says Leigh. "Your personal emotional Richter scale is an excellent guide."

Jon Bernhardt, he of the Quisp and Grinch cels, agrees. "Don't get into it for investment purposes. Buy something that you love and that you think you'll love for a long time." Spoken like a true art collector.