Earlier today, Jerry Beck posted a Cartoon Brew article regarding the now-viral "lost" Oswald cartoon auction that has been hyped by a successful press release campaign.
Staff at the Huntley Film Archives, a private British stock footage firm, located a 16mm print of Hungry Hobos (1928) in their collection several weeks back. Upon doing some preliminary research and realizing the film was not available publicly and had been touted as a "lost film," Huntley staff shared news of the find to industry folk through a listserve frequented by cinema historians and archivists. Reaction was small but definitely excited among the few of us who specialize in early animation...these finds are usually of less importance to others who specialize solely in live action films.
As one might expect, though, several of us in the animation history circles who learned of this discovery were of course excited about it. Until this week.
The Problem, In All Fairness...
We in the archival film community are reminded of the rare nitrate Charlie Chaplin film, "Zepped" (circa 1916), which was also offered by Bonhams in June of this year. This too was sourced from a British collector of antiques. It did not realize the ~$160,000 asking price, and this came as no surprise to us in the field. To assign values to old films, especially exorbitant amounts, has always been a difficult task as these items simply never have been successfully traded at high prices, even between those of us most interested in them. Perhaps it is because typically, we scholars are the only ones interested in old and obscure films; making their value ultimately historical, not financial. They simply do not turn a high profit for us, and so collectors and historians have traditionally traded, bought and sold at relatively low prices when compared to other historically significant pop culture artifacts.
Hungry Hobos is different from "Zepped" in that it is a 16mm safety print. Considering this was located in Great Britain, the print was probably made by Ensign LTD., a firm much like Kodascope Libraries that offered contemporary films for sale and rental in the 1920s and 1930s. Any person could consult Ensign to rent or buy a print of Oswald cartoons as well as many other subjects they carried. This means that unlike nitrate 35mm prints, which too were originally mass produced but then destroyed en masse, Ensign and most other 16mm prints are not entirely unique. While they are rare today, to call a 16mm subject of a mainstream film a "lost" subject is a bit of a misnomer. We too like to use this term in the field, but it better suits commercial endeavors such as the sale of the Oswald film. Unfortunately, though, prospective buyers and the general public would not understand that this print probably is not at all unique. Though, even unique silent animated films are often traded for a few hundred dollars if not less, and certainly not for several thousand dollars.
Silent Cartoon Economics and Oswald
Silent animation truly is an orphan genre. While there are many fans of silent films today, few have more than a passing interest in the animation of the period. Ironically, many silent cartoon series enjoyed widespread broadcasting on 1950s television as it was very satisfactory time-slot filler material. But since then, silent animation has never really enjoyed much of a wholly dedicated fan base. Even few individuals ever really focused on collecting just this one genre of film, either. I can count those individuals on one hand.
Seeing as my focus in collecting and preserving film has always specifically catered to silent animation, I feel more than qualified to comment on the economics and values of these films. It is clear to me that Bonhams did not consult any of the fine gentlemen in our community of animation historians to help formulate an asking price for the Oswald cartoon. That price is absurd to me on many levels, but most obviously because I have been able to amass my library of over six hundred rare silent cartoon subjects for a sum that rivals or is less than the asking price for that one Oswald cartoon. Thus, to me and to fellow industry insiders, the whole situation seems more tongue-in-cheek than anything; if not insulting to those of us who might otherwise be interested in obtaining the film. This is a classic case of poor field research and wide-eyed agents seeing dollar signs swarming around the room.
With regard to Oswald, the character itself has had a very colorful history, moving through several producers and owners. In recent years, Disney reacquired certain rights to the character and put out a very nicely prepared DVD collection of the shorts that could be found in time for its release. The contents of that DVD collection are consulted today when one locates a Disney Oswald cartoon and determines its rarity, as in the Huntley example. I should note that from what I understand, Disney did pay a premium to acquire certain cartoons for its DVD collection--sometimes a few thousand dollars each. Yet we must put this in perspective. A few thousand is still nothing compared to the Bonhams asking price--and a few thousand is still exorbitant to those of us with insider knowledge of more typical silent cartoon prices. A few hundred dollars per film is more the norm for selling and acquiring rarer or "lost" titles. Disney is the exception that proves the rule: the one studio that produced silent animation that survives to this day that still seems interested in archiving its past works. Given Disney's interest, it is somewhat more reasonable to expect that a "lost" Oswald cartoon--as opposed to other "lost" silent cartoons--could fetch a large sum. But still there are limits. My cartoon researcher peers and I have bought several pre-Lantz Oswalds for less than a hundred dollars, including a Disney subject on which only one other original element was known at the time.
Silent cartoons deserve to be collected easily and seen by interested groups; not traded as fine art pieces, though they should still absolutely be the subject of books and ample academic research. If we come to a point when famous auction houses with powerful press releases bring in high bids on these kinds of items --from individuals who are not involved in this field, clearly--it could further limit the availability of new "lost" film finds for researchers, scholars, and curious individuals in the future. These films were created to be enjoyed and then usually discarded. The goal should be to keep them in a public spotlight for enjoyment, but not to be locked up in vaults with $30,000 price tags...it would be akin to discarding them from the public eye.
As someone who has been a lifelong participant in locating and preserving early animation, I feel right in voicing an opinion that the route this sale could take worries and disappoints me. Working in this field has already been difficult enough considering it is mostly a labor of love that rarely brings much of a rewarding financial return. It is based on that experience, too, that I find the auction route and the expected financial sum worrisome in that it could create a dangerous precedent that could make my work--as an individual and not a firm or archive--more and more difficult.
This one is still missing. Will it one day lead to empty wallets?