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He Trades on Fantasies of Others: A Dealer in Comic, Animated Art

January 14, 1988|CHARLES SOLOMON

"Animation art has shot up enormously in value--perhaps 30% a year--and certain items, particularly Disney cels, are appreciating even faster," said art dealer Jerry Muller. "I remember 10 years ago, turning down a cel of the Witch in 'Snow White' with a background for $200: It was a little discolored, and the background was a little too plain. Today, I could sell that piece for $3,000 or $4,000."

The owner of Museum Graphics in Costa Mesa, Muller is one of the few dealers in America to specialize in animation and comic art. He buys, sells and trades drawings, cels (sheets of clear acetate onto which animators' drawings are traced and painted), backgrounds, preliminary sketches, cartoons and comic strips, dealing with artists and collectors all over the world.

A jovial man with an easy laugh and just a trace of a New York accent, he talked about his work in a recent interview, surrounded by a fairy-tale king's ransom in drawings and cels.

Five winters in Milwaukee (four at Marquette University and one as managing editor of Country Beautiful magazine) convinced Muller that "God never intended human beings to live in that environment." He moved to California in 1962 and found a job editing Orange County Illustrated.

"We were trying to be like a local New Yorker (magazine)," he explained, "and there were a lot of good cartoonists living in Laguna Beach: Virgil Partch, Phil and Frank Interlandi, John Dempsey, Ed Nofziger and Dick Oldden. So we rounded them all up and had them contribute to the magazine--at about one-tenth of their going rate, as we didn't have any money."

Muller became a collector when he started saving favorite drawings of the cartoonists he knew. He wrote to other artists for examples of their work. ("In those days, cartoonists would usually just send you something if you asked," Muller said.) The business of dealing in comic art gradually developed from his activities as a collector.

"To build my collection, I had to kind of wheel and deal," he said. "I'd have to buy things in bulk or sell some drawings to buy others. At one point, I was intent on building the biggest and best collection in the world, but I realized that on my limited income, that was an impossible goal."

In 1981, Muller opened his South Coast Art Center gallery in Corona del Mar, which he moved to Costa Mesa two years later. Because his customers were scattered all over the world and the bulk of his business was conducted through the mail, he sold the gallery in 1984. His dealership is now confined to mail and telephone orders. (Museum Graphics, P.O. Box 10743, Costa Mesa, Calif., 92627; (714) 540-0808.)

"I thought I could convert more members of the public into collectors, but it didn't seem to work out that way," Muller said. "The collectors of animation and cartoon art are a heterogeneous group, but most of them are people to whom this kind of art means a lot.

"I've also had people say to me, 'If I could afford to start collecting French Impressionist paintings, I would, but it's too late to get into that ballgame. However, I can buy a piece of Disney concept art for $500, which I know is going to be worth a lot of money some day'--which I think is a correct assumption."

According to Muller, classic comic strips command the highest prices: "Krazy Kat," "Flash Gordon," "Prince Valiant," "Little Nemo" and "Bringing Up Father." Among contemporary strips, "Peanuts," "Pogo," "The Far Side," "Doonesbury" and "Shoe" are the most sought after. Disney cels are the most valuable pieces of animation art. Muller feels that "drawings, particularly concept drawings and preliminary studies are the real bargains--they're still underpriced."

"Comic art got hot about 10 years ago and took its big jumps in price then," he said. "Classic Disney art has tripled in value in the last 10 years, and material from the '50s has done even better. People collect what they grew up with, and the kids who grew up watching 'Sleeping Beauty' and 'Peter Pan' are now making enough money to buy images from those films. And they're paying top dollar for them: Every time I'm tempted to say that prices for cels have topped out, the market makes a fool of me."

In addition to his work as a dealer, Muller organizes exhibitions of comic art for museums. His first effort, "The Cartoon Show," opened at the Laguna Beach Museum in 1972 to glowing reviews and record attendance. The exhibit toured colleges and museums around the country for the next seven years.

Its success led Muller to assemble two other traveling shows in 1981, "The American Comic Strip" and "The Moving Image," devoted to animation art. He's now at work on an expanded version of "The Moving Image," drawn from the collection of Northern California industrialist Mike Glad.

"The other shows were well-received, but we've assembled the greatest collection of animation art in the world," Muller said. "The exhibit will consist of about 500 pieces and begin touring major museums in about two years. It's going to be the ultimate statement on the art of animation."

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