Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Catalog available for purchase at
I set up this blog as an extension of the Pop Sequentialism exhibition I first curated back in May, 2011. That show was the culmination of a lifetime of collecting comic books and original comic book art. It was made possible through my position as gallery director at La Luz de Jesus Gallery, the influential birthplace of lowbrow art in the 1980s, pop surrealism in the 1990s, and an early promoter of street art in the 2000s. Since the target demographic of my Pop Sequentialism show was collectors of fine art, I had to write detailed descriptions of each page outlining what made each of them important. Unlike, say, oil paintings, comic book art is made valuable not only through the quality of the technique or a particular artist's fame, but also by the popularity and fame of the writer, the characters illustrated on each page, and the chronology and importance within the canon of each of them (artist, writer and characters). The regard and acclaim for the story and the era from whence it comes can add to or detract from the value derived from key composition, as can the word balloons (or lack thereof) that punctuate the action.

In that regard, comic book art is burdened with the most complex criteria for evaluation of any artistic media. Perhaps because of that, it has been difficult to attract fine art patrons into collecting it. And that (to me) is madness.

The great benefit to figurative, narrative work is that its aesthetic value need not hinge on bullshit. Any reasonable person can look at a well rendered drawing or painting and conclude that a high degree of ability went into creating it. Whether or not they've been educated on the importance of composition or have any knowledge or inclination toward understanding allegory or symbolism, as human beings they will pick-up on the fact that these other things make the work in question great. They may not be able to tell you why it's a masterpiece, but their appreciation of what elevates it beyond average is intrinsically embedded in their DNA. We, as people, are born with an understanding of such things. We recognize faces in inanimate objects, because our eyes are trained by our brains to do so. Certain colors elicit certain responses, and shapes behind or incorporating the figure in the foreground are collected and appreciated based on our need to find them–sometimes consciously, and sometimes subconsciously. The truly great works of antiquity are hailed as such because they tap into all of these stimuli. So tell me, how is an abstract conceptual piece more legit than a published illustration of the modern mythology?

Because a few people with a lot of money had a dog in that fight and decided it should be so.

The most important work of the 1990s. Really?
Let me go on record by saying I'm not a hater. There is plenty of worthwhile and important contemporary art. I respect Jeff Koons for his tireless dedication to high craft and perfection. Last year alone I got to see an installation (Ed Keinholtz), video art (Christian Marclay), and a performance piece (Marina Abramovic) that moved me as much as a Beethoven Symphony or a Caravaggio oil. That said, what was true in Hans Christian Andersen's day is still true now–there are just a lot more naked emperors. Damien Hirst's prices are slipping not only because of the dozen or so charges of plagiarism, but because there's not a lot of craft to what he's created. I've seen the taxidermy pieces up close and they are very poorly made. Hirst also got caught manipulating his own market, and at the end of the day, nobody likes a cheater. But for the past twenty years, paying millions of dollars for dead sharks has been big business. There has been a cabal of artists, critics, auctioneers, and billionaire collectors who have conspired to attribute astronomical value upon art that the overwhelming majority of people–that includes artists, gallerists and the general public– think is total shite.

Because sometimes ownership just isn't enough...
Whether good or bad, a lot of very recently produced art has been appraised in the tens of millions of dollars for the solitary purpose of spending and hiding money. The more it costs, the better, because it's a tax shelter for the impossibly rich. Some collectors have donated millions of dollars toward museum expansion budgets, bid and won on the building contracts, and then filled the new spaces with their own art collections. They received a tax break and a key to the city for their donations, they then got that money back as the contractor, and ultimately they get to house their collections for free while getting another tax break on lending the art. The experts hired to appraise the value of the pieces in these collections are often the auction houses that sold them. If that's not insider trading, I don't know what is. When that newly expanded museum loans the collection to another museum, the insurance required to move that collection is raised 10 to 20 percent above the most recently appraised value, raising the actual value to the most recently insured amount. When those museums fall into financial trouble, key donors are able to purchase pieces from the institution's permanent collections at tasty discounts and open their own museums–where you can be sure the directors will be more aware of budget than they were in the public sector.

So, as you can see, discussing the art is as relevant as discussing the weather, because the former has the staying power of the latter in most cases.

A Fine Art Hedge Fund Group
The truth is that many of the top end buyers of contemporary, conceptual art are merely investors with little or no opinion about what they're buying. They buy it because it's been occasionally profitable in resale, but majorly profitable as a tax shelter. Since art is only taxed on resale, owning expensive, blue-chip art is like having a tax-free savings account. It's better than hedge fund investing because art is not subject to capital gains tax. At that level, the art stops the clock on the IRS until it is sold, and if it is sold at a loss (like real-estate) the seller can claim that loss as a deduction without having paid a property tax.

There are teams of accountants who ensure that this system stays in place.

The people who actually do enjoy abstract expressionism tend to be academics or big thinkers who may find comfort in the presence of a big idea piece that delivers on a single promise (the concept). Maybe they use their brains all day long, focusing on minutiae and such and don't want to be overwhelmed by complicated brush strokes or even the easily recognizable. Like most other art, it boils down to personal taste. Sometimes it's a design motif, sometimes it's bragging rights. I'm not judging them for what they collect, but I'd be lying if I said I don't judge them for what they pay for it. There are brilliant, high-concept pieces out there; I'm not denying that. It's the assumption of brilliance in the lack of either concept or craft with which I take umbrage. Add cost to that concern and you've got the makings of class war.

Warhol's "Burning Green Car 1" sold for $71.7 million in 2007
Cost is relevant. The amount paid for a thing is justification of its perceived value, and there's not much difference between perceived value and actual value in the art world. So when an Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein piece sells for thirty to fifty million dollars more than the comic art it homages, it send the message that the parody or the tribute is more valuable than that which inspired it. I love Mural with Blue Brushstroke, but I'd much rather have the cover illustration of Fantastic Four #51 hanging on my wall. That's true Pop Art.

Jack "King" Kirby. 'Nuff Said!
I've often posited that comic art is more than just an illustration or painting on a board. It's nostalgia as well, and not just of the page that was printed from it. A single comic book page activates a time machine that transports an entire span of time all at once. The adventure captured on that page is symbolic of every adventure depicted in comic books. It's a functionary of fandom that the individual items within a collection represent the collection as a whole. This may be why I've always held onto a handful of comics each time I've sold or donated my collections: by keeping two or three books, I'm retaining the right to remember everything I once, owned along with all the memories that those items which were dear to me embodied. So it's rewarding that such blatant sentimentality should also be enormously profitable.

What's that he said about enormous profit?

Take note, would be investors: it turns out that comic book art is a far better investment than just about any other kind of art.

It's true. Before sitting down to write this column a few weeks ago I decided to do some research. I looked at thousands of realized auction prices for contemporary and post-war paintings and sculptures, called and wrote a few dozen galleries, and poured through twenty years of purchase receipts. After addressing anomalies, such as the sudden spike in sales an artist's death will cause, and comparing market inflation with economic bubbles I discovered that in the world of fine art there are frequent cycles of appreciation and decline. They are invariably connected to wall street, and art market bubbles tend to mirror the late 1980s hedge fund explosion, the 1990s stock market rise, the dot com bubble and the recent real-estate collapse.

This is what $140 million looks like
Art Net and Daily Beast both predict an imminent Art Bubble Bursting as fears of the fiscal cliff became fears over sequester. Auction houses are still reporting record sales, but the staying power of the current all stars is being called into question. Since the 1980s, blue chip artworks by John Baldessari, Jeff Koons, Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picaso, Andy Warhol and Richard Prince have been ascending dramatically. But resale of several pieces purchased during the bubbles at absolute peak pricing have been resold at dramatic losses, showing that (like the real estate market), when you buy is just as important as what you buy. In between these New York Times headlines of record, realized prices are a lot of unpublicized flops.

Raymond Parker
, Mary Frank, Ernie Trova and Damien Hirst, who were each the most important artists of their day, are all seeing their prices fall far below peak sales figures. Some have fallen back into obscurity. 

Now let's take a look at comic book art.

Available now from Albert Moy
I'm not even going to address the heightened price tags that currently accompany the Silver Age works of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko or Jim Steranko. I'm also going to leave out the recent sky high auction sales of Frank Miller or Todd McFarlane (for now). Let's look at lesser known Bronze Age comic art, like that of Don Heck, Sal Buscema, Jim Aparo, and Dave Cockrum. Journeyman comic artists all, but I think it's safe to say that none of these names was ever considered the best in industry (at least not in the way that their contemporaries Carmine Infantino, John Buscema, Neal Adams, or John Byrne might have been). In 1995, there were literal stacks of Jim Aparo and Sal Buscema pages on multiple tables at Comicon for $5-10 each. Phantom Stranger pages, Spectre pages from the Michael Fleischer run in Adventure Comics, and Brave and the Bold pages, next to Marvel Team-Up, Two-in-One, and even Defenders pages which were also a sawbuck each. At minimum, they have increased fifteen times in value over twenty years. Not key pages, not splash pages, just run of the mill pages have increased in value by 1500%. And there were semi-splash pages in those stacks. In researching this article, the cheapest Jim Aparo Bronze Age art I could find was $1,100.00 (above, left).

Pretty much every single title from the Bronze Age has followed this pattern, so a George Perez Teen Titans cover, which might have been $400 in 1993 is now $7,000 or more. A John Byrne interior Iron Fist page which might have been $200 could now be $3,000. Cockrum's Uncanny X-Men pages were never as high demand as Byrne's, so back in the 90s a really great non-splash page with Wolverine and Nightcrawler could've been obtained for a few hundred dollars. Now it's an auction piece.

And what about comic art that was new back then?

Now in the Felix Lu collection
In 1996 I bought five key pages from Preacher #1, including the first appearance of main supporting character Cassidy (right), a page of the titular hero using his powers, and several pages featuring all three main characters for $60 each. Steve Dillon signed them all, right there at the table, as did writer Garth Ennis. I sold two of those pages four years ago for a thousand dollars, and the guy who bought them flipped them an hour later for two thousand dollars.

I'm not claiming that this is a standard scenario, but none of the comic book art I've bought has ever gone down in value. In my own personal experience, in a decade case study, not only has nothing ever decreased, but the minimum return on investment has been 150%, with the maximum being over 2000%. In other words, if you hold onto comic book art for ten years, it is virtually guaranteed to increase in value–even if you buy unwisely. Often times, comic book shops will have original comic art for sale that was priced when it originally came into the shop, but has not been adjusted since. So while prices and demand may have increased elsewhere, a savvy buyer can score a bargain and obtain art priced years behind the current market. Even in this age of heavy online sales and ebay, shops aren't keeping up on these things.

What's the buyer premium on $657,000?
Unlike most other artforms, comics are basically a never-ending enterprise. Characters have outlived their creators and even their fans, but with reprints and blogs and professional reassessments, the interest is constantly renewed, creating newer generations interested in yesterday's comic books. Every new artist and writer brings something new to the mix and the inevitable reference to what has come before revitalizes the entire brand. An educated buyer can still get blue chip comic art for mere fractions (if not percentages) of what they might pay for other types of contemporary art. A Frank Miller & Klaus Jansen  page from The Dark Knight Returns (#3) sold for $448,125 two years ago. Last year a Todd McFarlane Amazing Spiderman (#328) cover sold for $657,250–and it wasn't even Todd's best. Those two pieces, as awesome as they are, would still only be Damien Hirst's "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" and Takashi Murakami's "My Lonesome Cowboy" each valued above $18 million. So what about the comic book Mona Lisa? The guy that owns the Joe Shuster cover to Action Comics #1 probably got it for under $50,000.00. The global record holder of highest price paid for original comic art is the cover to Herge's 1932 Tintin in America which fetched $1.6 million in June, 2012, which serves as a case point how much more elevated the esteem given comic books in Europe is.

My retirement fund?
I recently acquired a double-sided, unpublished page from the original 1940 Batman series penciled by Jerry Robinson and possibly inked by George Roussos that tells an alternate origin for Robin, implicating the Joker in his parent's murder. This Joker is much more like the original playing-card character than the Conrad Veidt "Man Who Laughs" likeness often credited to Bill Finger. In a way, this page may help prove Bob Kane's disputed recollection of how both characters (Joker & Robin) were developed. I'm currently working on the provenance and can only speculate what it might actually be worth. An alternate origin of the original teen sidekick featuring the greatest comic book villain of all-time drawn by the artists who created them at the time they were new. That's got to be worth more than a Todd McFarlane Spiderman cover.

I won't tell you what I paid for it until it sells, but it's looking to be a very, very good return on investment.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading your article (found on that Forbes website from a while ago) ; I recently picked a Batgirl splash page for not much and am still really happy with it. People just walked past it at a convention in Australia but compared to what that page would be worth if sold in Europe (I'm French and have been to cons over there), I just couldn't let it go. You have an impressive history and if I get myself in the game (I'm just starting), I look forward to make interesting discoveries, less for money than for art itself. I wish you success on your retirement fund prospect though, it's a very very interesting piece of history !