A Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Original Art

As many of you know, collecting original comic art has become a passion of mine. Of all the things we discuss, I would say original art is the thing I get the most inquiries about. As it turns out, collecting artwork is a daunting hobby to break into. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to decipher the puzzle for you. By the time we’re done, you’ll be creating your list of grail pieces and setting your sights on acquiring them.

Avengers: Age of Ultron, Pages 26 and 27 by Jerome Opena and Mark Morales

Original Comic Book Art = A One of a Kind Collectible
People buy original comic art for lots of reasons, and none of them are wrong. Ultimately you want to buy whatever makes you happy. But – for me – the main attraction of original comic art is the one-of-a-kind nature. Thousands of people may have a particular image printed in the issue they bought off the stands, but no one else in the world owns the specific original piece of art I have hanging on my wall. It’s a direct conduit between the illustrator’s efforts, and my own enjoyment.

Where to Buy?
The internet has dramatically changed the original art market. It’s much easier for buyers and sellers to find each other, and I’ve procured art from many different sources ranging from the artist’s own hands at an Artist Alley table to winning an eBay auction from some other art collector who was looking to sell off a page of his collection. I’m going to divide the seller’s market into four general buckets:

  • From an artist directly
  • From a primary art dealer
  • From a reseller
  • At auction
Rachel Rising, Issue 14, Page 15 by Terry Moore (bought directly from Terry at a convention)

Buying from Creators Directly
The first thing you have to understand is that every creator approaches sales of his/her artwork differently. There is no rulebook here. Some artists count on selling their originals in order to supplement their income and are very aggressive at making pages available. Other artists hold a strong attachment to their work and are reluctant to part with their pages at any price. In many cases, you’re not going to know where an artist falls on that spectrum until you ask. But here’s the thing to remember, if you visit an artist’s website or their Facebook or do a Google search on them and can’t find out about their original art sales, don’t hesitate to contact them. I have yet to find an artist that won’t tell you – politely – about their policies. I’ve had artists simply tell me they don’t sell their art, I’ve had other artists refer me to their dealers, and on a few occasions I’ve been pleasantly surprised to have artists say they’re happy to sell their art, but haven’t had the time to set up anything. Those conversations usually progress to their asking what pages I was specifically interested in, and then we have had negotiations to see if we can close a deal.

Pages bought from reps — American Vampire (Cadence Comic Art), Black Science (Essential Sequential), and Rocket and Groot (Felix Comic Art)

Buying from a Primary Art Dealer
Many artists don’t have the time or energy or interest in handling the sales of their artwork. In that case, they may opt to hire an art dealer to represent them in the marketplace. While each dealer has his/her own business practices, basically any reputable dealer offers the following:

  • Maintaining a web presence for display and sale of artwork
  • Promoting the artist’s work to an existing network of buyers
  • Promoting the artist’s work to new potential buyers
  • Making pages available at conventions and other viable events
  • Cataloging and indexing of the available pages including scanning, with detailed descriptions
  • Setting up the pricing of pages, leveraging their experience to find a balance between maximum profit and sustaining demand
  • Handling the financial payment, clearing and shipment of the art

In exchange, primary dealers get a piece of the pie. Most dealers that I’m aware of take work on consignment, meaning the artists don’t get paid until the page is sold. This is the most common method of procurement. I buy the majority of my artwork through dealers.

Buying from a Reseller
This is the broadest slice of the art market, with the widest range of sellers. As a result, it’s also the area you need to be most careful about in terms of knowing who you’re dealing with. The secondary market refers to any art that’s being sold after the initial transaction. The two key differences between buying in the secondary market and primary market are:

1) Purchases in the secondary market don’t benefit the creators
2) You’re likely paying a markup from whatever the page originally sold for

Don’t misconstrue those points as a condemnation of the secondary market; because the vast majority of artwork for sale out there is only available that way. The simple fact is artwork persists, and people’s interests/finances/circumstances change. Ultimately it’s not for you – the buyer – to concern yourself with the motivations of the seller, just make sure you’re happy with the purchase and that the seller has a history of good transactions. On an auction site like eBay, that’s easy enough to vet. Many art dealers not only serve as primary reps for current creators but also sell art in the secondary market, too.

We should further bifurcate this segment into two types:

  • Individual sellers – People looking to move pieces from their own personal collections. The good news is these collectors often have pages that you’ve never seen available before. Usually, this inventory isn’t constantly available but hits the market suddenly. You’ll have to keep a constant eye out for these types of sellers. Frankly, a lot of buyers will reach out proactively to collectors if they know of a particular piece in a collection.
  • Professional resale dealers – Professional resellers are an interesting bunch. The bad news is they’re the savviest collectors in the world and are always looking to maximize profits. They also tend to have the largest inventory of art, particularly vintage pieces. The good news is they’re also able to unearth and procure new pieces because sellers often seek them out when trying to part with big collections. I’ve had positive experiences with resellers, but I’ve also had some nightmarish experiences. Caveat emptor. The best way to navigate this part of the market is to befriend other collectors and get the inside scoop on who is reputable and who isn’t.

At Auction
Auctions are a major component to the original art market. Yet, all auctions aren’t created equally. eBay may have the most volume, but these days very few “important” pieces are auctioned on eBay. If you’re looking for a relatively inexpensive piece of art from a relatively modern collector, eBay is perfectly fine. But if you’re looking for a higher priced piece or something with provenance, chances are it’s going to find its way into a more formal auction. Sites including Heritage, Metropolis, and ComicLink have auctions frequently, and this is where you’ll find the jaw-dropping, sought after pieces that rarely see the light of day. A word of caution, many resellers buy at auction and then immediately put those pieces on sale for higher prices. The key to auctions is knowing exactly what you’re willing to pay and staying disciplined. You also have to recognize that many pieces coming up for auction may literally never been seen again.

Know What You’re Buying
All original art is not created equally. Before you decide to dip your toes into the waters, it’s important to understand the process by which most comic book art is created. It’s also important to understand that the way comics are created today differs greatly from the way it was done for decades and why that matters to you – the potential art buyer.

  • Pencils vs. Inks – Traditionally, the most common method for creating comic book art is for someone to pencil images and for another to ink over top of the pencils to add texture, definition, and finishes. The greatest art (IMHO) is a collaboration of the two into a finished image. As a potential buyer, you need to be mindful of whether you’re buying a penciled page or a pencil and inked page. Pencils are not as visually dark and defined and thus won’t photograph as well or be as visible if you’re displaying them as art on your walls, but pencils generally have more “value” to collectors. A penciled page can show off subtleties in the work that can be lost when inks are overlaid. Inked pages are, by definition, a truer representation of what we see in the finished comic book. It’s truly a matter of personal preference – I own examples of both.
  • Inks over Blue Lines – As more artists have integrated digital techniques (e.g., Photoshop and Manga Studio) into their process, a new category of art has arisen. Now many pencilers will either “pencil” digitally and then send those files to an inker, or they’ll scan their pencils and create a blue-lined version, which is then used for inking. For some collectors, buying a page that has inks over blue lines does not hold the same value as a page that has inks over the original pencils. Frankly, I used to be in that camp. Yet, as more artists pencil digitally, I – and many collectors – have done a 180-degree turn and will gladly buy inked over blue lines. From an investment perspective, you have to assume these pages will hold less value than their traditional counterparts, particularly if the penciler has also put his version of the page up for sale.
  • Size of the Artwork – The most common size of an original page of comic book art is 11” x 17”, usually on Bristol Board. But don’t presume what you’re buying will be that size; always confirm first. Artists work in a variety of sizes and on a variety of different types of paper.
  • Published Pages vs. Commissions – Published pages are defined as artwork that was created for use in a published comic book. The artists retain ownership of the pages and generally this is what most people think of when they’re discussing “original art.” Commissions are pieces of art done, by request, for a collector. Commissions can vary from simple head sketches to single figures without background to intricate, fully composed scenes to cover-quality recreations of published works.
  • Word Balloons – The evolution of digital lettering has forever changed the way original comic art looks. Most likely any comic art you buy from a modern comic is going to be without word balloons. They are added digitally in post-production (along with the coloring process). Years ago, word balloons were physically created and overlaid onto the art. This makes for a very different finished product as an art buyer. I love the nostalgic feeling of owning a classic page where the letters are pasted onto the Bristol Board, but there’s also something to be said for the modern approach where the visuals stand alone as an image without being ‘crowded’ by the word balloons. This, again, comes down to personal preference with one caveat. If you want to own artwork from any classic creators not currently producing, chances are you’re going to need to buy pages with word balloons.
  • Coloring – A lot of first-time art buyers are confused by the lack of color on the finished pages. Understand that the vast majority of comic book art is not colored. Coloring, even going back to the 4-color days, has usually been done in post production (i.e., after the art has left the creators hands and made its way to the publishers). Today the vast majority of color is done digitally, and thus never touches the physical copy of the penciled and inked image. For those who crave color, may colorists offer color guides and color reproductions, but keep in mind that this is not generally considered the same thing as buying original pages. There are exceptions to the rule of coloring, as creators today utilize multiple disciplines. Painted works – by definition – are done in color and sold as originals. Just keep in mind that generally a painted work – because of the time and complexity of the process – is going to be more expensive than a comparable page done in pencils and inks.

How Much Will It Cost?
Let’s be candid…original art is not a hobby for bargain hunters. Any time you’re buying a one-of-a-kind collectible it’s not going to inexpensive. If you simply like the art or the image and don’t care about its provenance or uniqueness, I would recommend seeking out prints instead. But if you want the real thing, it’s going to cost you. The good news is that everything is relative. You can realistically build a beautiful portfolio at any price level. Entry-level pages will cost $150-$200 and scale well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. There’s a price point for everyone.

Splash Page: Secret Invasion, Issue 8, Pages 12-13 by Yu and Morales

Basic Rules of Thumb:

  • Covers are the pinnacle – Images used as covers typically fetch the highest prices. Candidly, I don’t buy cover art for that reason. But many serious collectors covet covers and ou can expect a cover to fetch 5x-10x the price of an average interior page from the same book.
  • Splash pages are artist’s money makers – A splash page is usually made up by a single panel or image, and traditionally also portrays a significant story moment. Much like covers, splash pages usually are the most in demand and can fetch prices significantly higher than any other pages in a book.
  • In costume face time = more value – As a general rule of thumb, the more face time a main character gets on a page, the costlier the page.
  • Talking heads = least expensive – The converse of the face time rule. If a page features secondary characters, particularly those out of costume, or is largely background scenery, the price of the page is generally much less expensive than the average page.

Buying as an Investment? Tread Carefully
As a portfolio manager by trade, I’m an investor. Yet, I do not buy comic book art as an investment, and frankly don’t think you should either. Let me clarify. Many of the pages I own are now worth considerably more than I paid. Yet, I’ve never bought a page with the idea that it will be worth more in the future. I’m sure there are speculators out there who are good at such things and more power to them. But I live by the rule that as long as I’m happy with what I own for what I paid for it, it simply doesn’t matter what becomes of the value later in life.

Buy artwork because you love it. Does it speak to you? Do you love the characters? Do you love the artist? Would you have a smile on your face seeing that page hung in your house? Does the price seem reasonable to you with the idea that you never intend to resell it? If the answer is yes, then by all means proceed.

Other Tips & Tidbits

  • Historically inkers are given 1/3rd of the pages of an issue they ink while the penciler keeps the other 2/3rds – many times inkers use different art dealers and have different views on the value (in other words, they want less $$$) of a page than the penciler of said page
  • Negotiations are perfectly reasonable so long as you’re polite. As with anything, an artist or dealer’s willingness to deal is going to come down to the magnitude of your offer. I’ve had success negotiating particularly when I’m looking to buy multiple pages from the same artist/dealer
  • Many artists and dealers will offer sales that coincide with the year end or toward tax season
  • Always be informed before you buy. Any dealer (primary or secondary) or artist that’s not willing to answer your questions is probably not someone you want to do business with. But also don’t hound them, they should get back to you in a reasonable time frame even if it’s just to let you know they’re busy and when you can expect a more detailed answer
  • As artists continue to evolve into the digital realm, it stands to reason that the supply of finished original pages will ebb
  • Don’t assume because you can’t find an artist’s pages easily on Google that he/she aren’t open to selling them. Many artists, particularly up and comers, are happy to sell their pages but haven’t yet streamlined their process

Buying original art is one of the great passions of my life, and although I’m an experienced, savvy collector at this point, I was once a first-timer, too. Most of what I know now was learned through trial and error. Luckily, you don’t have to jump into the deep end without a life vest. There are plenty of resources online – and collectors willing to share their experiences – to make your foray much smoother than my own.

Note: A prior version of this article, written by me, was published on iFanboy in 2010.

  • pandadude

    A good read. I really enjoyed the information and effort put into the article.