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.