Monday, November 28, 2011

Sorry, Oswald: You're an Unlucky, Exploited Rabbit.

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.

The Situation

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.

In Conclusion

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 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?


Kristjan Birnir said...

Hello, Tom
Thats very thoughtful article.
The asking price is absurd. You even don't have been an expert on the field to know that this asking price is way over inflated. Its also a shame that film archive is putting it up for an sale with that stunning price tag I would have understood the price is if it was for all "the lost" Disney cartoons both Alice and Oswalds. But for that one Oswald cartoon, thats way over the top. There only two things to do now pray god that Disney bites bullet and pay the asking price or win the lotter buy the cartoon and donate it to Disney. But also we can pray that David Gerstein turns up with some more positive news on discovering rare "lost" Disney cartoons.

James Abbott said...

Excellent post. Historically, there is little-to-no connect between historians and empiricists, and dealer, vendors and investors. I have long dreamed of an extensive archive of our shared movie history, but so much of it is sold at auction and parceled off in private collections. Some day such an archive might be created, but I'm not holding my breath.

videoclassic said...

It looks like people are simply trying to exploit this material for its perceived financial value. Nowadays, there is only a small core audience for this material. I can say that for animation and silent films in general, there is a small core audience, so the inflated prices asked here are not only ridiculous , but not even viable in todays market. So if you run accross a rarity such as this , kindly sell it to someone who cares to preserve it. This individual who preserves silent film animation is doing historians a tremendous favor. This material is preserved as a labor of love, so sell it to the person who wants it for $10. It is a great favor for film history.

videoclassic said...

Price is way over inflated.

Dino Everett said...

Tom well said,, and what a crime for people to exploit this historical material for such financial gain...I walk both sides of the street as a collector and an archivist by profession so I believe I can comment... I have in my possession a 8mm print of a disney cartoon called Cannibals, and I personally feel certain it is the only print in the world and therefore I am now opening it up to the highest bidder, because I believe this stuff deserves to get out there......(did the sarcasm come through firmly enough?)
Great post Tom
Dino Everett

docnad said...

I left the following comment on the Cartoon Brew's post and, with you're indulgence, I'll repeat it here:

The minimum online absentee bid is 40% of the low estimate, Bonhams’s standard practice. This means a bid of $12,000 is the minimum bid required to get you in the game. The reserve, the minimum price at which the film will be sold, is not generally revealed, but it’s possible for it to be anywhere between the minimum bid and the low estimate, in this case $30,000.

If Bonhams has erred and set its estimate too high, the market will let them know it and the item won’t sell. It can always be sold privately or offered another time with a lower estimate. But this is a unique item with historical significance to the Disney legacy, and it’s just possible it has value beyond its commercial release.

I can imagine a scenario, for example, where a museum might want to acquire the world’s only copy of this film and make a print for viewing. Imagine receiving an invitation to a gala benefit for the Disney Family Museum or the Museum of Modern Art. Attendees at the $500-a-plate dinner will be treated to the first screening since 1928 of a “lost Disney masterwork.” Afterwards, an expert from, say, Cartoon Brew will make a few remarks about the historical significance of the cartoon. Later, all visitors to the museum will be able to see the rarity in a special screening room. In the meantime, arrangements can be made with Disney for the long-term preservation of the film. How much is that worth?

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Tom, for a brave and important perspective on this matter.

I'm a newly trained film archivist, and my MA dissertation looked at British animation from WW1. Furthermore, I am (fairly) local to the Huntley Film Archive and was overjoyed to find out via the listserv that this discovery had been made so close to home.

While, as docnad notes, the film may sell under the estimate (or not at all), I think that is beside the point - putting it up for auction, especially at a price beyond the means of most collectors/historians/enthusiasts, is not in the best interest of the artefact.

Many archives (at least public archives) cannot 'buy' film, no matter how rare, because it sets a precedent. If all donators to an archive found out that that archive was willing to buy films, might they demand equal payment? No archive could afford to acquire and preserve without the generosity and good will of like-minded collectors.

In essence: I'm with Dino.

docnad said...

The film sold for $25,000 plus the buyer's premium for a total of $31,250(plus any tax).

Tommy José Stathes said...

Very late update: Indeed, the film sold with a nice and high price realized, and the buyer was Disney. I highly suspect that that was a one-time thing, however. Let us see if it ever happens again.