NEW YORK — When it comes to animation art, there is one name that has led the market since the late 1930s. Based in Los Angeles at that time, the animators at Walt Disney Studios cranked out many thousands of celluloid images, or cels, of Mickey Mouse and other now-beloved characters for cartoons and film shorts. It released its first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, just before Christmas in 1937. That film was a huge hit, but were it not for another California company — Courvoisier Galleries — much of the original artwork generated to create it might have been lost to history.
In the process of animation, each scene is drawn on ink on cellulose-based plastic sheets and colored on the back. Due to their chemical composition, these cels were susceptible to color changes and wrinkling as they aged and were exposed to light. Many cels were scrubbed clean after a film’s completion and reused for the next production, or stored with little regard for their potential value as cultural artifacts. Also, some early cels were made of cellulose nitrate, which is highly flammable.
Guthrie Courvoisier of Courvoisier Galleries in San Francisco saw the value and market potential of these cels after Snow White’s release. He approached Kay Kamen, who was a merchandising executive best known for his work in licensing Disney art, and the two brokered a deal with Disney that allowed Courvoisier to preserve and sell original Disney animation cels to galleries and museums. In doing so, Courvoisier Galleries transformed the legacy of these animators from cartoonists into artists, and their labor-intensive work — analog animation required 24 drawings per second of film — into legitimate fine art.
“That’s exactly what they felt it was, they felt it was a fine art form so they went to Disney … and said we’d like to market these, and here’s what we could do,” said Mike Van Eaton, owner of Van Eaton Galleries in Studio City, California.
The relationship was very successful. In its first year, galleries across the world, from London to New York, had reportedly sold more than 8,000 Snow White cels. Courvoisier Galleries soon began selling cels, backgrounds and line drawings from other Disney projects.
Being Disney’s first release, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs occupies a special place in history and in the hearts of collectors. Even if they didn’t see Snow White in movie theaters, fans of a certain age likely remember seeing it at home on VHS and in turn, sharing it with their children.
Holding the LiveAuctioneers record price for a Snow White cel is one that achieved $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2011 at Heritage Auctions. The classic scene shows Snow White talking with her feathered friends. Hand-inked and trimmed to the line, the cel was mounted on acetate against its original hand-colored background, preserving it for posterity.
Images from the movie featuring the dwarves are also coveted. A cel showing the dwarfs Dopey, Doc and Sneezy realized $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022 at Michaan’s Auctions.
Snow White images are typically the most sought-after among Courvoisier-proven Disney cels, Van Eaton said. “They are the most desired and even with the large quantity [of cels] that are out there, they are quite collectible by all the collectors who are really into that. Pinocchio is also popular, followed by Fantasia and Bambi,” he said. “They also did a lot of stuff in between, a lot of the shorts like Ferdinand the Bull were popular.” A pair of original production cels from Ferdinand the Bull took $2,250 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020 at Van Eaton Galleries. The two images are in fine contrast to each other, as one depicts the Matador extending his hat to a crowd of his ardent admirers, while the other image shows Ferdinand on a hill contentedly watching a butterfly. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice the Matador’s appearance has been modeled after Walt Disney; it was based on a caricature of Disney himself.
Fantasia cels are, of course, desirable. An original production cel of Mickey Mouse from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence of Fantasia earned $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022 at Van Eaton Galleries. Retaining its original Courvoisier Galleries mat, the cel was professionally restored, trimmed and placed on a colored copy background from the film.
Collecting animation art is generational, and, as Van Eaton notes, “it’s all about who you collect and what characters you like. Animation collecting is very character-driven, so although the market is still good, it’s dropped a little [for older films],” he said, explaining that someone in their thirties and forties who grew up with The Little Mermaid and movies of the late 1980s and 1990s Disney Renaissance era will probably favor those characters.
Mickey Mouse is always going to be a top seller, and, as he was in many Disney shorts and films, collectors are spoiled for choice. A standout is a circa-1940 original signed Mickey Mouse animation cel and background that made $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2019 at University Archives. “The combination of this cel being of the premier marque Disney character, the Disney signature, and the Courvoisier set-up makes this piece a must-have for a Disney collector,” according to the auction house. This limited-run publicity cel portrays Mickey as an Argentine gaucho, or skilled horseman, and came out of Walt Disney Studios’ 1940 Goodwill tour of Latin America.
Other favorites from Disney’s early days include an original Dumbo production cel that went for $4,250 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2020 at Van Eaton Galleries. There were issues with certain Dumbo production cels due to an inferior paint being used on some, but the Van Eaton example is in good condition and has nice color overall. Also, an early production cel from Pinocchio depicting Jiminy Cricket underwater attained $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022 at Van Eaton Galleries. The display comprises trimmed cels of Jiminy, a bubble effect, and a fish, and is mounted over a custom background and mat prepared by Courvoisier Galleries.
A production cel from the 1942 film, Bambi, depicting Bambi and Thumper with a Courvoisier background and its original Courvoisier gallery label was framed with a Walt Disney autograph and dedication. It brought $3,250 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2019 at Westport Auction.
Van Eaton said Courvoisier not only created and drove the market for animation art, but “It’s because of them that these pieces survived. Other than the pieces Courvoisier put out there, most of that stuff was destroyed or thrown away. By them marketing it, they have actually saved a lot of Disney history in those cels and preserved the history of animation.”