Animated films first became popular in the 1930s and have since spawned an entire category of movie collectibles that have proved to be almost as enduring as the cartoons themselves. The most sought-after animation artifacts are animation cels, which is short for celluloid. Cartoons were hand-drawn or painted, frame-by-frame, on these colorful transparent sheets. Put enough of them together and you had an animated movie.
Collecting animation cels and animation art is a relatively new phenomenon. Until the Whitney Museum mounted an exhibition of Disney animation art in 1981, cels were seen as fringe items. In fact, after making “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” in 1937, Walt Disney had to be convinced that the cels his illustrators had painstakingly inked were not garbage. Since the Whitney exhibition, the appeal of animation cels has taken off, and different types of animation art regularly appear at auction.
The person who convinced Disney not to discard his animation cels was Guthrie Courvoisier, the owner of a San Francisco art gallery. He thought he could market Disney’s production pieces as works of art. To that end, Courvoisier cut around the borders of the images and placed them on backgrounds. The cels were then displayed in frames or on mats. Courvoisier continued to sell Disney cels through the 1940s, and his pieces remain some of the most collectible animation cels on the market today. Unfortunately, few remain in good condition because of the inexpensive means with which he prepared them.
Animation cels come in a number of forms. In addition to the Courvoisier cels there are untrimmed full sheets, trimmed cels, and multi-cel setups, which combine more than one frame.
There were hundreds, if not thousands of animation cels made for each movie, as each cel represented an individual movement of a character or scene. The most collectible animation cels are from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, though there are examples of older cel art, such as Winsor McCay’s “The Sinking of the Lusitania” from 1918 and “Gertie the Dinosaur” from 1914.
Today Disney films are at the forefront of collectible animation cels. In addition to the “Snow White” cels, other popular early Disney animated films include “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo,” “Bambi,” “Cinderella,” and “Alice in Wonderland.” All of these productions left behind countless memorable animation-cel images, such as Dumbo flying with Timothy on his back or the witch offering a poison apple to Snow White.
In addition to animated movie cels, there was also a bevy of collectible cels produced for cartoon shorts. Some of the most popular Disney cartoons featured Donald Duck and Micke...
More recent animation cels include those produced by Hanna-Barbera. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were former animation directors at MGM. After leaving the studio, they formed their own animation shop in 1957 and are responsible for much of the art from animated television cartoons such as “Scooby Doo,” “Yogi Bear,” “The Jetsons,” and “The Flintstones,” among many others.
Less sought are the limited-edition serigraph cels, which are screen prints of animation-cel images that are created for fans after the fact rather than hand-painted originals used in an actual production.