Animation Cels: Collecting Childhood Memories of Favorite Cartoon Characters

This is an original Walt Disney production cel on Courvoisier background from Fantasia.” It features Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and would currently retail for between $12,000 and $18,000.

Animation cels, as we know them today, first became available for sale in 1937 when the Courvoisier Galleries framed the original production cels from popular cartoons and sold them to fans. At the time they were readily available and incredibly affordable. You could easily find and buy a cel of your favorite Disney character for between 50 cents and five dollars. If you’re any kind of a collector, the thought of buying original production cels for such a low price is currently unthinkable. Those exact same cels are now selling for thousands and thousands of dollars. But at the time, the cels just weren’t as popular—or valuable—as they are today.

The popularity of animation cels didn’t really take off until 1984, when Christie’s in New York sold a collection of Disney animation art, solidifying animation as a true art form. Now that it was recognized as a valid art form, people scrambled to collect pieces that reminded them of their favorite animated stories. From then on, the collectible aspect sky rocketed, and the value of these animation cels rose at an equally rapid pace.

With all the newfound interest in animation, numerous publishers, such as Disney, Warner Brothers, Linda Jones Enterprise and Hanna Barbera, came up with the idea of selling not only the original production cels but limited editions of the most popular scenes and characters as well. These cels were still hand painted, but were replicated and numbered as part of a limited edition. This made the world of collecting animation artwork become even more popular. Now, everyone could collect their favorite scene from Snow White, Bugs Bunny or Fred Flintstone, not just the big time collectors.

Walt Disney felt that it took a team of people to create a cartoon, not just one singular artist, so no one person should have the right to sign an animation cel. Typically, you will find that the only time a Disney cel is signed by an animator is when the collector had the chance to meet the animator in person.

Warner Brothers, Hanna Barbera, Linda Jones Enterprises and other studios took a different approach toward artist signatures. They believed that if an animator were to sign the cel it would increase the demand for the piece and subsequently its value. So if an animator or the voice actor of a character was available to sign a piece, he/she would.

If you’re thinking of beginning your own collection of animation artwork, there are a large number of factors you’ll want to consider when buying and selling. It may seem overwhelming, but I’ll start you off with a few general distinctions that should get you started.

There are a number of different types of animation artwork out there, and each one carries a different value based on its rarity, condition and the characters/scene represented. To start, you should understand that the starring characters will be in the highest demand. So when you’re collecting characters, and this goes for production cels and any other original items, primary characters are worth the most amount of money. Secondary characters can still be valuable, but they will most likely be worth less than their leading counterparts.

Finally, there are four main types of animation artwork: Original artwork, original production cels, limited edition cels and sericels. Here’s a breakdown of each type and its main features:

This original production drawing was used as a reference for animators when creating the production cels for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Original drawings, storyboards and sketches: These are used in the beginning stages of animation to lay out how the cartoon will look and flow. They can be simple character sketches or storyboards depicting an entire scene. These items usually bring the most amount of money because they are always a true one of a kind.

Original production cels: When it comes to actual animation cels, there are two components to consider: the celluloid (the clear layer on which the characters are painted and/or printed); and the background. The celluloid from a lot of older cels—i.e. Snow White and Fantasia—are often cracking after so many years. They were made of a nitrous-based substance instead of the more durable acetate that was used in later works and is still in use today. With older cels in particular, you want to be sure and ask about the condition of the celluloid because the better the condition, the higher the value. All characters will be hand-painted on original production cels, and the condition of the paint is another factor to note.

The background is a particularly important component in original production cels. If the celluloid comes with the original key master set up, it will be the most valuable. This type of background was used in the actual filming of the cartoon and could be matched up with its celluloid to the exact scene from the original production. The second most valuable background is a production background. These would have been used in filming, but when paired with the accompanying celluloid will not necessarily match up to a scene from the actual production. The least valuable (but still valuable in its own right) is one that is produced after production and was never physically used in the cartoon. Be sure to find out exactly which background is being offered as it will greatly affect the value.

This is an original production cel from “Sleeping Beauty.”

Limited edition cels: These are a great item to purchase when beginning your animation collection as you don’t need to spend a fortune on each piece. A lot of these cels are worth between $450 and $3,000. The celluloid is still hand painted, but each image is produced in limited quantities of around 250 to 500.

Sericels: These cels are the least valuable of animation artwork. The characters are silk-screened onto the celluloid, as opposed to being hand painted. They do come in limited editions, however they are created in larger quantities, usually between 2,500 and 5,000 pieces.

As with all collectibles, the value of animation artwork will fluctuate depending on the current level of interest. At the present time, you should be able to get more value for your dollar. A lot of animation cels cost two to three times more six to 10 years ago than they do today, but that could easily change. Always be sure to do your homework before buying and be sure that the piece comes with a certificate of authenticity that is issued by a reputable dealer or publisher who has been in the business for a long time.

Once you have a general knowledge of animation artwork, collecting can be a great deal of fun. I found my way into the art business through animation cels more than 30 years ago, and I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed every minute since. Animation artwork has always reminded me of my childhood, and now I have the pleasure of watching the same movies with my son; I’m even looking forward to teaching him about the collectability and value of animation cels.

Good luck, and happy hunting!


Aaron LaPedis is an art and collectibles dealer as well as the author of “The Garage Sale Millionaire.” For more information on his book, visit the The Garage Sale Millionaire” website. Do you have a question for the Aaron? E-mail him at thegaragesalemillionaire@gmail.com

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One Comments

  1. Gail Korman says:

    I have a cell of Horace Horsecollar probably dated 1916 approx. as it was behind a picture of my dad about age 5 born 1908. In perfect condition if anyone is interested… thanks.