Mickey Mouse cels animate collectors

NEW YORK – Animation art has long been a popular collectible and is a great way to physically preserve a piece of one’s childhood. Among the earliest examples are production celluloids (cels) for Walt Disney animation movies, especially prewar film shorts starring Mickey Mouse.

The 1928 cartoon short, Steamboat Willie, for example, is notable in animation history as being the first film to star Mickey as well as the first cartoon to have synchronized sound. The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., has in its collection an original cel from Steamboat Willie, though it is not on public view. Cels were thin transparency plastic-like sheets that studio animation artists painted characters upon, which they then superimposed on a static background to cut down on how many reproductions were necessary to create a moving image.

An original production cel features Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice wearing the magic hat and with brooms in Disney’s 1940 feature film ‘Fantasia.’ The cel fetched $17,000 in December 2014 at Profiles in History. Photo courtesy of Profiles in History and LiveAuctioneers

Cels would be stacked and like a flipbook, the character would thus be animated to create movement. Many cels were required for even small movements so this was a tedious and time-consuming process.

Disney used this traditional style of animation in movie making for decades until digital animation became the standard in 1990 with the film, The Rescuers Down Under, the first Disney film to use a digital animation system.

This early production cel of Mickey and Minnie Mouse dancing comes from Mickey’s first official color film, ‘The Band Concert,’ circa 1936. It made $3,025 in August 2018 at RR Auction. Photo courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Made of cellulose nitrate, cels are fragile and over time, they were subject to shrinking, discoloration and damage. Some have been lost to history but in the late 1930s and early ’40s, many were collected, preserved and exclusively licensed for sale by Courvoisier Galleries, which saw these works as valuable art. At the time, the gallery was selling cels for about $5 to $35, with prime examples priced at $50. “Guthrie Courvoisier, president of the highly esteemed Courvoisier Galleries in San Francisco, was aware of Disney’s escalating reputation, and saw vast opportunity in it,” according to the Walt Disney Family Museum website.

A rare 1934 ‘Two-gun Mickey’ original black-and-white nitrate production film cel earned $13,800 in November 2015 at Hake’s Auctions. Photo courtesy of Hake’s Auctions

What makes one cel more valuable than another is partly subjective, owing to a collector’s individual tastes, and partly determined by factors like rarity, condition, what the character  (Mickey, for this article) is doing, how he is posed (driving a steamboat, dancing or sitting, for example) and which film or cartoon short the cel was created for.

“Mickey Mouse has such a long and storied history when it comes to film that you can literally go in just about any direction when it comes to collecting original animation,” said Alex Winter, president of Hake’s Auctions in York, Pa. “Certainly the more expressive or unique the image, the more appeal it will have visually to collectors. When it comes to shorts, personal preference is key as to what your favorite Mickey images are to collect.”

Mickey Mouse is pictured on this production cel in one of his most famous roles as the sorcerer’s apprentice in ‘Fantasia.’ Photo courtesy of Profiles in History and LiveAuctioneers

As a general rule, the earlier the short, the more desirable and rare, he said. “Much like collecting comic books or sports cards wherein the first issue or the first year tends to be the most sought after and valuable, Mickey cels from his first black-and-white shorts fall into these same parameters. Of course, there are other shorts from later years that are fan favorites and command serious collector interest as well. The other thing you have to consider is if you just want a cel or if you want one with a production background. A full cel setup is the ultimate, but it also comes with a much higher price.”

This original production cel from Disney’s 1935 ‘Mickey’s Service Station,’ depicting Mickey Mouse and Goofy, attained $98,587 at Heritage Auctions in July 2014. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Museum-quality early cels starring Walt Disney’s favorite rodent can bring big money. In July 2014, Heritage Auctions sold an original, unrestored production cel and master background from Walt Disney’s 1935 short, Mickey’s Service Station, which starred Mickey Mouse and Goofy, attained $98,587. The film is notable as it was Mickey’s last black-and-white cartoon. “It’s an extraordinary price for an extraordinary piece,” said Jim Lentz, director of Animation Art at Heritage in a press release written immediately after the auction. “This is really a Holy Grail piece of animation and one of the best I’ve ever seen, from one of the best early Mickey cartoons and one of the very last black and white Mickey cartoons before Disney changed everything by going to color.”

Disney’s south-of-the-border features came out of the 1940 Goodwill Tour of Latin America by Walt Disney. This publicity cel of Mickey as an Argentine gaucho was from that tour. It realized $5,500 in November 2019 at University Archives. Photo courtesy of University Archives and LiveAuctioneers

Whether one is looking for high-end investment pieces or is just a casual collector, there is plenty of room in the market for all budgets and tastes. “It is really about how serious you want to get and what you are willing to spend,” Winter said, adding that the good thing is much Mickey animation has survived over the years (as opposed to some other cartoons) so the options are endless. “You can jump right in and get some wonderful one-of-a-kind pieces for very reasonable prices or start at the top and go for high end animation. Are you happy with just a few very key cels or would you like to have a sample from throughout the timeline of Mickey on the silver screen?”