Comic art values surge as Tintin flies past Superman, Batman and Spiderman

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A surge in prices for TinTin comic art over the last two years has seen the prices of original comic art surpass even the fabled "Action Comics #1" (the first appearance of Superman) as the most valuable comic-related items at auction. Until just two years ago, the first Superman comic (published in June, 1938) was invincible at auction, but five separate sales of Belgian artist Herge's TinTin comic art has surpassed the entire wear-your-underpants-on-the-outside superhero genre, suggesting movement is afoot in the narrative art marketplace.

Until just two years ago, the first Superman comic from June, 1938 was invincible at auction with first, second and third place in the most valuable comics ever sold (US$3,207,852, $2,161,000 and $1,500,000 respectively), plus 6th and 10th, with Batman (twice), Spiderman (twice) and the Incredible Hulk making up the top ten, and giving the superhero genre a clean sweep.

In March 1938, the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, sold all rights to the first costumed superhero character to Detective Comics Inc. for $130. On April 18, 1938 (cover dated June, 1938), Superman debuted on the cover of Action Comics #1 with a print run of approximately 200,000 copies and was an immediate success, catalyzing the superhero genre. The series was an immediate success, and based on the obvious resonance of Superman with the American public, it resulted in a syndicated daily newspaper comic strip beginning in January, 1939 and a Superman comic book series in June, 1939. The first dedicated Superman comic was comprised of reprints of the Superman stories in the first four issues of Action Comics, with the highest recorded sale being $214,000 by Comic Connect in 2011. Action Comics #1 remains the most valuable single comic ever sold, at an eBay auction in 2014, with a price of $3,207,852.

The cheque which was given to those two high school kids who had conceived Superman for the entire rights to the character (including additional remuneration for artwork which appeared on the cover of the first issue of Action Comics #1) subsequently sold at auction for $160,000. Its infamy was partly due to the story that subsequently unfolded as Jerome Seigel and Joe Schuster kicked off legal action against Detective Comics which lasted 70 years.(Credit: Comic Connect)

A decade ago, the comic auction marketplace had seen less than 20 sales of comics exceed $100,000, with the record held by a copy of Detective Comics #27 (the first appearance of Batman) at $278,190. The marketplace has been growing like topsy since then, though, and our database now lists 257 comics that have sold for more than $100,000 at auction, and the last two years in particular has seen massive growth in prices.

In particular, a series of high-priced sales of artwork from Hergé's TinTin series has seen five separate sales push into the top 10, including taking Superman's top spot with a sale of $3,618,839, and giving the non-superhero more entries in the top 20 than any comic book character.

While American superhero culture might have kicked off the popularity of the comic book, creating a new genre of print mass media in America in the late 1930s, Europe also had its own popular comic books during the same period, with characters such as Tintin by Belgian artist Georges Remi (who used the nom de plume Hergé) and Astérix et Obélix by Albert Uderzo the best known.

The biggest indication yet that comic art is entering the mainstream contemporary art world was this world record price achieved by Paris- and Hong Kong-based auction house Artcurial in May, 2014, which sold for €2,654,400 (US$3,618,566). The ink drawings of China in 1937 capture Hergé's most inventive period.(Credit: Artcurial)

Narrative art

Indeed, narrative art has been with us for thousands of years. Some contend it can be traced back 20,000 years to the Palaeolithic period (citing the Lascaux cave paintings in France), though more fully-formed and detailed examples can be seen from 2,500 years ago (the sanskrit Panchatantra fables of India), 2,000 years ago (Trajan's Column) and 1,000 years ago (the Bayeux Tapestry), so the concept of storytelling with a series of images is far from new.

Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer published from 1827 onwards , with cartoons in English published in the United States from 1842(Credit: Artcurial)

Regardless of how long ago it all started, the European tradition of storytelling with art culminated with the first comic book in Glasgow in 1825, and a rich tradition accelerated by the work of Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer from 1827 onwards (published in English in the United States from 1842).

April 30, 2016 saw the latest TinTin artwork crack the million dollar mark when 'Le Sceptre D'Ottokar' sold. That's Eric Leroy, Artcurial's comic book expert with the art.(Credit: Artcurial)

The rise in price at auction of Herge's art past the values of Superman, Batman et al is even more surprising when you consider the strength of the American superhero cult and the strength of the American collector market. America has by far the greatest number of High Net Worth Individuals, and its auction sales consistently draw higher prices for similar objects than those in Europe, regardless of the genre of collectible, but infinitely moreso for objects embodying American culture. A prime example of this is sporting memorabilia, where more than 75 percent of the top 100 most valuable sports memorabilia items ever sold comes from just one sport – baseball.

Like Superman, Batman quickly evolved from an anthology role player in Detective Comics #27 (May, 1939) to a fully fledged major star in a short time period. The transition saw Robin the Boy Wonder join him in DC #38 (dated April, 1940) and his own comic book in Spring, 1940. The highest priced comic of the three at auction is top left, the most valuable of which was sold for US$1,075,500 by Heritage Auctions in February, 2010. The highest price ever fetched by a copy of Detective Comics #38 is $126,500, sold at a Heritage Auction in May, 2005. Heritage also sold the highest priced copy of the Batman #1 at $567,625 in August, 2013.

America invented, embraced and still adulates the superhero, as can be seen by looking at a list of top grossing movies or most watched television shows from any year. There are now more viable American superhero franchises than there are major religions. Superman, Batman, Spider-man, Ant Man, the X-men, Flash, Green Lantern, Captain America, Captain Marvel, the Mighty Thor, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Wolverine, Iron Man, Justice Society of America and the Human Torch have all been the primary subject of comics sold for more than $100,000 at auction.

See our image library where we have images of the highest priced "first editions" of each of these comics at auction.

The Comic Art market

The rise of Tin Tin and his contemporaries in the world of comic art directly correlates with the rise of Paris auction house, Artcurial. The company is the fastest-growing of the international auction houses and has moved into the automotive collectibles marketplace with similar success, too, recently setting a world record for a Ferrari 335S Spider Scaglietti that sold for $35.7 million in February 2016.

Artcurial set up a dedicated comic strip division in 2005, building a pool of in-house expertise that could identify, authenticate, and curate this marketplace and since then it has sold six of the world's top 12 comic/comic art works, and holds a strong first place in the world for comic art.

Narrative art has long been the art most visible to the public, and this dramatic rise in the value of the original art that has been part of the childhoods of so many collectors is now moving into the realms of the traditional art market, with pricing to match.

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