“Is it worth restoring?” That is the single question we are asked with increasing frequency about all types of animation art. The answer isn’t as easy as you think.
Those in the “know” have, until now, thought only about current value vs. cost of restoration as a rule of thumb. The issue has amounted to: If the cost of restoration exceeds the current value of the art, then forget it.
Armed with a solid history to look back upon, that approach is badly flawed and damning to the collecting experience going forward.
IT ALL STARTED IN 1984
The golden age of animation ended in 1969 or thereabouts. It wasn’t until 1984 that the art form gained serious public interest and collector preferences began to mature. At the same time, studios were making the slow transition from the analog age of cel animation to the digital age. The use of cels in the production process was slowly disappearing. Interestingly, the same kind of transition occurred about 20 years earlier when studios left hand inking behind and changed to the now-customary xerographic system of transferring drawings to cels. Today, studios no longer use cels except for making limited editions, if they make them at all. Cels, drawings, backgrounds and the other products from the hand drawn era are now the tangible antiquities of animation’s history.
Prior to 1977 studios were able to make or remake any artwork they wanted. The value of animation art remained modest, as it had not yet begun its stellar climb in interest and collectability. The small number of collectors that existed at that time could select from literally thousands of pieces of art in the marketplace. The public’s discovery of animation art wouldn’t happen for another seven years. So, even the idea of conservation or restoration was hardly of interest, let alone something collectors would be concerned with. To put this in perspective, studios donated art to the animation society to raise money, and the society in turn sold production cels, backgrounds and matching drawings for $5 a box.
In fact, conservation of the entire realm of 20th Century objects was not a concern of most museum conservators. There were simply too many objects much older demanding their attention to be concerned about newer items. For animation art, the first conservation effort happened with the creation of the Search & Rescue Team project of the animation society in 1977. The S/R project was originally conceived as a peripheral service to help members locate art to acquire, “Search,” and to restore the Society’s tiny art archive, “Rescue.” Within a few years the project would become S/R Laboratories Animation Art Conservation Center. Forty years later S/R is still the only animation art conservation center in the world.
RESTORATION FOR TODAY AND TOMORROW
There are two ways to view restoration: “restoration for today,” wherein your artwork is as valuable or more valuable than the cost of service, and “restoration for tomorrow,” keeping your art in good condition so it will accrue in value as time passes and will be worth more in the future. I am not addressing here the many ways to determine “value.” Sentimental value, historic value, and personal preference all play a part in the decision to extend the art’s longevity.
HISTORY TELLS US MUCH
If the past is any clue, we know that if your artwork is in good condition and is maintained, its value will accrue or go up. Perhaps it won’t become more valuable as fast as you’d like, but it will increase with time. The opposite is true as well. Allowed to deteriorate and your art’s value will decline even faster. Deterioration feeds on itself. The longer one waits the more difficult it is to effect a satisfactory restoration.
We also know the truth of the old adage that what’s old will become new in no time at all. Longevity is the key to value, the key to longevity is condition, and the key to condition is conservation.
IN THE MIDST OF IT ALL
As the studios cast off their unwanted and tired production materials and methods, we thought about those materials and methods, much as collectors think about the art made from them. Some cast-off studio techniques were obscure, some impossible to replicate without, say, the right kind of airbrush. Making some paints or inks required vintage or expensive equipment to replicate or pigments no longer obtainable. The passion for the past was our present and it became the gift of our future. As it turns out, that’s now what’s important to you and your collection. We have the airbrushes thanks to our long-time sponsors at the Paasche Airbrush Company. We have the actual wood veneer used to make the beautiful backgrounds for the Snow White art Disney created as lobby cards and the Courvoisier Galleries® art sold to the public, and so very much more. We have it all.
SHE WILL JUST KEEP TRYING
As cels slowly began to fade from the production process, so did the inkers and painters who created them. As they retired, there have been some very skilled and experienced artists who have attempted to service the art they or their predecessors created. But here is the catch: the art that was created is not what the art has become over time. The environment, mishandling, and a host of other issues figure into how any object ages. What it once was is in no regard to what it is today. The well-intentioned craftspeople have always worked on new art. They have no experience with vintage art. To put it in everyday terms, you can’t treat a Model T automobile as you would a new car.
Here is a true story that might throw light on a myriad of issues. An older woman called S/R Labs not long ago and asked to speak to a conservator. I took the call. She said, “I have a Snow White cel. It has some dirt on it and I would like to have it removed. Can you do that?” I responded, “We usually can. Do you know what the ‘dirt’ is? She said she didn’t. I invited her to make an appointment and bring in the art for exam. She demurred, saying, “I am a retired painter. I am trying to restore the cel. I figure if you can get it off then it’s possible. I will keep trying. Thank you.” She abruptly hung up. Trying? Trying with what? She had no way to determine the composition of what she thinks of as dirt and was not even thinking about the condition of the cel itself and how it would respond to treatment. She was clearly well over her head in knowing how to address the problem. I wanted to say, “don’t try this at home” but she was gone.
We are proud to be the depository of the many special techniques, materials, and unique methods of animation’s golden age. In fact, we still make Disney inks and paints, using original techniques and materials, just as they were made every day back then. Covering every base, we digitized the entire Disney color system for the Walt Disney Company, so the knowledge would never be in danger of being lost again. Historic Courvoisier Galleries® of San Francisco and all its secrets is now part of S/R Labs. And, we are glad to report, S/R is the only source in the world that can repair or delaminate previously laminated cels. Lamination was a nice idea at the time, in the 80s and 90s, but like nail polish on cels and all the other home remedies that should never have been tried but were, it turned out to be just the opposite. What’s more, we work with art of all of the golden age studios: Warner Bros., Fleischer, MGM, Lantz, Schlesinger, Hanna-Barbera, Filmation, MGM, 20th Century Fox, Ruby-Spears, DIC, and all the others. In recent years, we have made Anime a specialty, as well.
At S/R Labs, the technical history of animation, from its golden age on into the digital age, is well remembered and fully documented, as is how the art that defined it was made, and remade, over time.
So, is it worth restoring? We think you know the answer.
What are you waiting for?
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