Comic Book Art: The Next Big Collectors’ Craze?

Art

Comic Book Art: The Next Big Collectors’ Craze?

No longer the stereotypical preserve of nerds and geeks, comic books are enjoying a dominant presence in popular culture like never before. Is this a trend that’s soon to be reflected in the auction market as well, if not already?

Written by Renyi Lim on 2 May 2018

It’s safe to say that today, there’s absolutely zero stigma attached to being a fan of comic books. Certainly not with the recently-held Comic-Con International: San Diego drawing over 130,000 attendees, and the popularity of films such as Marvel Studio’s The Black Panther, which grossed around US$387 million in its debut weekend in February – setting an all-time record for a weekend debut during that month.

With superhero films becoming the media franchise (and effectively, cash cow) of choice for major film studios and distributors, those with an eye on the auction market might be cannily wondering whether it’s time to start making a few worthwhile comic art additions to their collection. After all, with comic books as the raw, revered source material for franchises that have exploded into television series, short films, digital series, and plenty of merchandising opportunities, it would make sense for them to be valuable collector’s items as well.

And indeed, some of them are: in 2014, Action Comics No. 1, the 1983 comic that marked the debut of Superman, sold for a record US$3.2 million on eBay, becoming the world’s most expensive Superman comic. This year, on eBay again, an All Star Comics No. 8 comic book featuring the first appearance of Wonder Woman went for US$936,223, setting a new record for that particular issue. The French auction house Drouot also broke the world record in 2017 for a work by Albert Uderzo – the much-loved comic book artist and co-creator of the Astérix series – when they sold the cover of an early Astérix comic book from 1964, Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix, for €1.4 million (US$1.7 million).

Still A Niche Market

Comic Book Art, Bande Dessinée, tintin, asterix

Despite these examples, however, comic books still appear to be a niche market, which traditional auction houses have yet to engage with or capitalise on, especially on a frequent basis. If Christophe Fumeux, the specialist behind Drouot’s recent record-breaking auction, is correct, perhaps they’d better hurry before other, more enterprising auction houses get there first: “I believe that the market of bande dessinée has, little by little, replaced the market for figurative painting,” he explains, mulling over the potential of Franco-Belgian comics, which are known as bande dessinée or BDs.

“This popular art, that reaches all levels of societies, has naturally became a response to contemporary art, which is more difficult to access, more abstract, and elitist. In the auction world, the market for bande dessinée emerged about 30 years ago in France and over 50 years in the US. It is a market that increases constantly but steadily, as it is based on a large number of collectors. The market works quite similarly as the markets for classical paintings or contemporary art: some extremely famous artists, very well-known and sought after, prevail over a multitude of authors more or less known.”

“It is a pyramid-shaped market that is common to every specialty. Together with Hergé (the creator of Tintin), Uderzo is part of these major stars. His genius talent is recognised globally and his original works are extremely rare in private collections. Colour covers of Astérix are rare exceptions. When facing works that are so valuable they could be in a museum, collectors have no financial limits. They know that these works will never appear again in an auction room.”

Growing popularity in the auction world

Comic Book Art, Bande Dessinée, tintin, asterix

Expanding on the success of the recent auction in October, where a second Astérix cover by Uderzo – Le Bouclier Arverne – was also auctioned for an impressive €1.2 million (US$1.48 million), Fumeux points to the series’ and artist’s wide appeal.

“Both these Astérix album covers are known internationally. Everyone  – or nearly everyone – has read Le Tour de Gaule or Le Bouclier Arverne. Astérix’s phenomenal success (350 million albums worldwide) and the fame of the series is as important as The Beatles or Madonna! The two comics were written in 1964 and 1968 and epitomise the golden age of the series. It was René Goscinny and Uderzo’s most productive and creative period. Additionally, the graphic qualities of these illustrations, painted with gouache, are exceptional: Uderzo combines his incredible drawing with his genius sense of humour.”

“In a word, these works are emblematic of the ninth art and major pieces in the Franco-Belgian comic world. The album covers that sold on 13 October were the only covers to have been seen on the market. Moreover, they had a perfect provenance: they came from the private collection of French television presenter Pierre Tchernia, a close friend to Uderzo and Goscinny. All these reasons justify the high prices and world record.” In Fumeux’s opinion, aside from the Astérix series, there is just one more major name in the world of bande dessinée –although that doesn’t mean collectors should ignore other comic artists.

Comic Book Art, Bande Dessinée, tintin, asterix

“Only an album cover by Hergé could compete with the popularity of Uderzo’s Astérix. They are the two main authors of bande dessinée. One has passed and his œuvre is concluded, while the other is alive and well, and continues to create. This could explain the difference. The world record for an illustration by Hergé is €2.3 million (US$2.84 million). There is an important gap between that and the next range of prices with authors that achieve between €100,000 (US$123,540) and €500,000 (US$617,700), such as Enki Bilal, Hugo Pratt, André Franquin, Moebius, and Peyo.”

Is there a possibility that popular culture’s newfound love of comic art could skew collectors’ preferences in the art auction market at all, which so far appears unthreatened by the relative newcomers on the block? “Bande dessinée is an art form in itself,” responds Fumeux, “But sometimes, its decorative aspect responds to the same rules of that of the art market. Most of the time, an illustration or a series cover will achieve higher prices than a black and white drawing articulated with boxes.”

Give it a few more years and a dozen more superhero blockbusters, though, and perhaps the direction of influence might start flowing the other way in the world of auctions.

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