More About Original Comic Book Artwork

I’m once again copying my part of a conversation I had on a relatively closed Facebook loop so that all others may see it. A discussion about comic book artwork for sale led to people suggesting that all original comic book art for sale might be stolen goods and that there should be provenance for this art just as there is–or as people try to reconstruct provenance–in the larger art world. I had this to say:

“I do not think the provenance of original art is significant if that art was produced prior to 1974 when Marvel started returning art, and whatever date DC started. No one is sure who legally owned those prior produced pages. The provenance of newer art is clearer, but it’s irrelevant unless an individual had art in his possession and it was stolen; that would be a property crime and something could be done about it. It would be up to that person to publicize the theft and to track down the art, though; I doubt the police would assign any detectives to the case until the person found the art. Otherwise, it’s all pointless speculation and people should feel free to buy whatever art they like. The Comics Journal published my Marvel inventory; I no longer have the original inventory. That artwork may or may not be on the market today but since Marvel never has pursued anyone for selling any Marvel art, I would not lose sleep over buying an original Kirby page from a stranger outside a comics shop. I might consider mugging the guy, though.”

My moment of levity was quickly countered by a mention of the infamous theft of classic 1960s original artwork from the Marvel offices that soon after was followed by a flood of classic Marvel art being sold at a local convention. It was suggested that the living artists or their heirs might initiate civil suits to regain the artwork produced prior to 1974. I said the statute of limitations would have run out on that criminal theft, but was reminded that civil suits might have longer terms. A quick check of the net suggests that those terms have long since run out, though the recent lawsuit by the Kirby heirs against Disney (Marvel’s parent owner now) suggests that a substantive enough case might not be dismissed out of hand.

Which leads to my next post,

“Although anyone can sue anyone for anything, with artwork produced prior to 1974, “rightful owners” is not something that has been agreed upon. Possession was determined with my Marvel inventory, not ownership. Ownership was claimed for insurance purposes, of course. It does seem fairly clear that some of that art was later stolen from Marvel but I was not working for Marvel at the time and to my knowledge Marvel did not officially pursue the theft. Maybe someone knows if Marvel ever notified the police that a theft had occurred, or listed what had been taken, or made an insurance claim. I doubt it happened, but I have no way of knowing if Marvel accepted compensation for the stolen artwork since insurance payouts are not matters of public record. If the insurance company paid, then the insurance company now has title to the stolen art, not Marvel. If Marvel ever had ownership rights to begin with! Thus we’re back to an issue of who owns the art. I think you are right to advise people not to buy from people who might themselves be thieves, but determining that is not easy, either.”

I think it is important to reiterate that although Marvel insured the artwork as if Marvel owned it, that ownership was based on Marvel’s physical possession of the artwork implicitly defining the ownership as belonging to Marvel. This is a rich topic for discussion and no one has definitively tested such ownership in the courts. Even if they had, one decision could be reversed by a later decision, and the case for artists’ enduring rights in their work has gained some moral ground over the last few decades, although no legal ground that I know of.

I have no idea if Marvel kept up the insurance policy, but originally the suggested value of the art was $100 per page, which at the time was the production cost of one page of comic book artwork, including pencils, inks, and lettering. That amount was far in excess of the resale value of most original art back then, and remains far in excess of the resale value of some artwork in the secondary market today. Artwork value in the fan market has always been based on the popularity of the specific artist or the subject, so even in 1976, it is possible that one single page of classic Kirby artwork or any Spider-Man page could have sold for $100 or more to a fan. But at the time, that price was not likely for most comic book art for resale. If Marvel had put in an insurance claim, it would have received $100 per page lost to theft, and no more, regardless of who drew it, whether at the time one could buy a page of that artist’s work for $5 or $500.

It could be important to pull out my statement above that if Marvel had made an insurance claim and if the claim had been paid, if and when the artwork had been recovered, it would have belonged to the insurance company unless Marvel refunded the insurance payout, in effect buying it back. Once a claim was made, it would have been the insurance company’s job to determine the validity of the claim and possibly to recover the artwork rather than pay the claim, except that at $100 a page, we aren’t talking about big money here for an insurance company, and this isn’t a movie. The company would probably have paid the claim. If it ever was made. So the provenance for those pages would be an unnamed insurance company. Maybe.

What if you bought a page of Kirby artwork with your entire life savings? Chances are that the company or person you bought the artwork from did not go to the Marvel Comics offices circa 1980 and steal that page. But maybe that page was stolen, and a few buyers later it has come to you. Legally, as of today, you are in the clear. Morally, what is your responsibility? I don’t know. We each have our own thoughts about who owns comic book original artwork that was produced as a collaborative effort at a time when no one, not the artists, nor the letterer, nor the writer, nor the publisher valued that piece of Bristol board once it had been used to create a printed comic book page.




  1. It’s a long standing legal axiom that a thief cannot pass good title. While statutes of limitations often make a lie of that principle, artwork because of its unique nature has sometimes been treated differently. If someone buys a common item in commerce, a camera, a television, etc., the buyer would have little reason to question why the item is being offered for sale. Because such items, though valuable, are so common, unless the circumstances should arouse suspicion (out of the trunk of a car, unusually low price, etc.) a buyer would be under no obligation to inquire any further. But if he/she has unknowingly purchased stolen property, upon sufficient proof the law can compel its return to the rightful owner.

    Because there can only be one original of a work of art, a prudent buyer would seek some provenance. The more valuable the work the more important its provenance becomes, because the purchaser not only wants avoid buying stolen work, he/she must be on guard against being snookered by forgers too.

    But the question raised here is who is the rightful owner in the case of the allegedly stolen Marvel artwork. Depending on the terms of the insurance policy, if there was one, and if a claim had been filed and paid. It seems to me that the insurance company would be the rightful owner. An artist (or his heirs) looking for the return of the artwork would have to get the rights of ownership in order to pursue a legal action in replevin.

    If Marvel didn’t insure the artwork, or didn’t file a claim with its insurer, Marvel is probably the owner. But either the insurance company or Marvel would do well to work with the artist, because he/she would have the most compelling case for the artwork’s return.

    There are some stolen/lost artwork websites, but as far as I can tell nothing devoted primarily to comic book art. It’s so easy to put images online it would seem to me a sensible thing to post images of the works that are missing so any future buyers would be put on notice.

  2. Off-topic…You really ought to consider self-publishing the Complete Comic Book Letters of Irene Vartanoff, 1965-1969 (or whatever the dates were)! What a great bit of comic book history that would be! (Of course, I’d say the same to the other distinctive stylists of the era, such as Guy Lillian, Mike Friedrich, Mark Evanier, Gary Skinner, Peter Sanderson & Martin Pasko). I’m often rereading old DC issues and am delighted when one of your excellent missives pops up (most recent find: Atom #35, Mar. ’68). I remember seeing a lot of these back when I was about 9 years old, being impressed with this young woman with the cool name and lots of opinions, so strongly yet politely expressed!

  3. Rich, that’s a sweet thing to say. We all put a lot of passion into our letters. Our love for comics was true and very personal. We cared. I believe that’s why other people responded to our letters. They had similarly strong feelings about the comics, and we just happened to have expressed them on paper.

    I will be redoing my website soon, hopefully to include a page with some interesting things from my comic book times. I’ll be self-publishing my first superheroine adventure novel in 2015, too.

  4. Hi, I suddenly find myself being unable to comment on your blog when I access it through the link in my blog list, as I suddenly find myself presented with an invitation to join WordPress. Is there any way around this apart from the method I have used to submit this comment?

  5. This blog post (and the one prior to it on the same topic) just came to my attention as I was doing a search.
    Thanks to Irene and Mitchell for addressing this topic.
    One point I would like to add concerns the all too frequent claims that “the artists” did not value their work prior to the early ’70s.
    That may be the case in some instances, but it certainly wasn’t the case with Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko.
    Ditko has apparently never sold a piece of his original art. And it is known that Ditko still his in his possession at least two DR. STRANGE stories which he withheld from Marvel when he decided to quit. The fact there are two DR. STRANGE stories suggests a good possibility of at least one SPIDER-MAN story. We know it was Ditko’s habit to work at least two issues ahead and so on the day he delivered his last Spider-Man pages to Marvel it would be a big break in his work schedule if he didn’t have at least one story finished or nearly finished.
    It’s documented that during the ’60s Roz Kirby began withholding certain pages by her husband if she felt the pages were worth more than what Marvel was paying for them. It’s also been said by numerous friends of the Kirby’s that Kirby asked that his work be returned all through the ’60s and he was consistently rebuffed.
    And there is the fact that in the ’60s original art Marvel sent to Don Wallace for use in the MARVELMANIA magazine was used by Wallace to pay his employees.
    So while the art did not have a huge value at the time, it certainly did have value and was often worth more as original art than the page rate the creator was paid by Marvel for reproduction rights.

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