The Contrarian Collector: The Pros And Cons Of Selling Versus Trading Original Art

by Koom Kankesan

If you’re thinking of letting a page of art go so you can get something new, should you sell it or trade it? I’ve found that selling induces more regret in the long run but trading can be fraught with more anxiety in the short term.

Trading art has now become very difficult because pieces have become more like commodities than collectables. This is true of comic books too, but especially true of comic art. You’ll hear lots of wild stories about buying and trading art in the old days. People agreed on purchases and trades over the phone and sent cheques and money orders through the mail. Sometimes, they’d see a small thumbnail reprint of the art in a newsletter. At other times, they’d have no idea what the art actually looked like until it arrived. The very first page of art I bought (in the nineties) was purchased this way (a phonecall to a dealer after seeing his contact info in the back of a comic with no idea what the art actually looked like, especially as it hadn’t been published) and I was lucky the seller was honourable.

You do hear occasional stories about sellers who did not send the art or sent something else than what was promised. In one story, the seller simply sent photocopies of the pages which begs the question: why did the seller spend the money on postage to send anything at all? Though all of these dangers existed when people traded art or partially traded art through the mail, probably a lot more trading compared to now. This was probably due to the fact that comic art was not thought of as a high end collectable; despite often being more expensive than representative comics one could buy, art pages were still a niche, quirky thing that only a few people sought out. These avid collectors saw trading as a method to hunt down the stuff they really wanted. To read more about original art prices and availability in the past, search through Daniel Best’s blog here

Nothing could really be done about the hazards of sending money or art in the mail until eBay and Paypal standardized the method and purchasing of art, and auction houses followed suit. You could simply wait until you met a given artist or seller in person at a con or at a store, look through what they had on hand and make a direct cash purchase. Since these opportunities were not common, it was not easy to engage in the hobby in a “live” way. When I was a teenager collecting comics in Toronto in the early to mid-nineties, we didn’t have big cons. Therefore, I didn’t see actual comic art pages for a long time. One tended to occasionally hear about art rather than see it. I only bought something like four pages during that entire decade – I’d wait until I could meet a creator who’d worked on something meaningful before asking if they had art for sale.

The internet in general allowed visual files of art to be easily displayed and made widely available. This allowed their commerce to become much more vigorous and immediate and the advent of eBay afforded levels of consumer protection that wasn’t possible before. This increased commerce along with the maturing of a certain generation of collectors into a demographic that ensured maximum spending power crossed with a deep nostalgia for comics and creators that seemed more potent than what had heretofore existed. The increased presence of comic cons and comics in cross-synergy with other popular media platforms like TV and movies, boosted the perceived value and demand even more. Prices for art have risen exponentially over the last decade.

We now operate under the assurance that there are buyer protections with the customer’s interest at heart but it’s not until something goes wrong and one has to open a case or bring forth a dispute that these actual protections are put to the test. Anyone who’s opened a Paypal dispute will know that resolving it in one’s favour is no fun. It’s more challenging than doing the same thing on eBay, although eBay is far from perfect too. Add the fact that art is much more expensive than it used to be and there is a fear in the back of people’s minds as to various things that could go wrong.

This all makes trading that much more difficult. People have suggested using an intermediary whom both seller and buyer can trust – both parties mail their art to the intermediary who then mails each package out to the appropriate receiver. The problem with this is that it’s difficult to find an intermediary that both people will trust implicitly, not to mention the extra cost. Now one is paying for two sets of mailings and perhaps an additional fee to the intermediary. I personally only try to trade with people I’ve gotten to know well and feel comfortable with online – but more than one experience has shown me that while you think you may know someone online, you don’t really know the person unless you know them in real life and have a feel for how they’d act in different situations. Anything can happen.

Furthermore, people are more reluctant to trade art now because of the spike in values. Even if something doesn’t happen to the art during transit (postal slowdowns, damage, lost or stolen packages), there is the more abstract fear that one can’t let go of art because of the speculative nature of the hobby – who knows what that page might be worth in a few years’ time? Who of us could afford to purchase something we already own in five years’ time if prices keep going the way they’re going?

I still believe in and ascribe to the joy of trading and its value so now, I’m pretty much relegated to only being able to trade by taking one or two pages to a con, hoping I’ll find an amiable trading party. Besides bypassing the economic vicissitudes engendered by working with monetary transactions, trading allows you to not stockpile too many things. And after all, these are just ultimately ‘things’, though they can often signify relationships or self-knowledge and other meaningful experiences.

Madame Xanadu (1981 1st Series) comic books

My most fraught trading experience along these lines involved a Brian Bolland page from the first story he drew for DC in Madame Xanadu #1. I had bought this page initially because I really wanted something by Bolland and couldn’t afford the more expensive artwork floating around for sale. Eventually, by doing a time payment plan (essentially lay-away for comic art buyers), I got something else that was more representative of what I loved about Bolland’s art and couldn’t justify keeping the first page if I was going to buy new pages. I’d sold art through eBay before but less and less people were looking for art there, preferring auction houses instead. I contacted one of the major auction houses and sent them a picture of my Bolland page from Madame Xanadu #1. The person on the other end heaped lots of praise on it and predicted a figure for its sale that seemed quite wonderful, justifying its sale (even with the auction house’s commission).

Unlike eBay, when you sell with an auction house, you have to mail the art to them and consign it. You sign over the rights for them to auction it – they in effect become the intermediary party. On eBay, if you don’t like what’s happening with an auction, you can cancel the auction, simply pay eBay the penalty and hold onto your art. Sending something in to an auction house requires a relinquishing of control. Furthermore, the person at the auction house I was communicating with asked me to not place a reserve price on the auction – he said that starting the bid at $1 and having no reserve would encourage more interest in the page. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. He then instructed me to keep the reserve price as low as possible so as not to deter bidders. So I put the reserve price at just a little more than half what the guy thought the page might go for. However, when the bidding ended, the bids came just within sight of the reserve price but no higher. I was very lucky – if someone had bid another hundred dollars, I would have lost the page and been fairly unhappy with the funds.

The guy at the auction house said that I should list the page again but this time there would be no option to set a reserve price. I realized pretty quickly that these auction houses give a hyped account of what your art might sell for as part of their strategy to get you to consign your items. Once the item is out of your hands, there is nothing you can do about it and once again, I had been very lucky – I would have felt robbed if the page had sold at my reserve price. For auction houses, they simply want the consigned items to sell – that is the way they make money. On top of this, one hears rumours about auction houses lowballing people for their art and then listing it themselves, getting people to trade in art at a deflated value instead of paying for purchases in cash, placing bids on their own auctions in order to drive up prices, and of course, the hefty premiums that can leave sellers with a lot less than the 90% of a sale price they get from eBay. There are good reasons to go with an auction house too, especially as eBay is now rife with listings that are pornographic/worse-than-amateur/forgeries and scams, but people are less aware of the pitfalls of consigning with auction houses. As an experienced collector once said to me, ‘everyone’s trying to game the system.’

I obviously did not want to relist the page after this experience, under the conditions mentioned. I had it shipped back to me, preferring to eat the shipping costs instead. Since selling the page in order to fund a new purchase hadn’t worked, I attempted to trade it instead. After getting more lowball offers from dealers (a pretty common experience), a dealer in Italy offered me a good trade value for the page. Furthermore, he had some pages from Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Big Numbers for sale. Many people think of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and Marvelman as the holy trinity of Moore’s work but I think his non-superhero work following that period is just as rich, if not richer and far more important to what comics can be. An alternative triangle or trinity for me is Big Numbers, From Hell, and A Small Killing. This is where Moore really shows the interstices between literature and comics – his exit from the mainstream superhero world provided new directions and work that might never have happened otherwise.

I had to put some money on top of my Bolland page for the Big Numbers page (pictured at the top of this column) but I didn’t mind. There aren’t many Big Numbers pages in existence. The dealer and I ended up discussing a couple of other trades. In the end, it was quite a complex trade and a big risk. I insisted that we each send our packages at the same time and after checking up on me a little bit, the dealer agreed. I paid him the surplus money I owed him and we mailed our packages. When mine eventually arrived (via UPS), one side of the large package was open. I was aghast. Had the dealer neglected to seal the package properly? Had someone working at UPS simply decided to try and steal whatever was in the package. Luckily, when I opened the package, all three art pages (including the Big Numbers) were there. The dealer had put these massive wall calendars on top of the pages in order to camouflage them and that may have helped – I don’t know. When I told the dealer about what had happened, he surmised that the package was probably opened during the customs process and simply not resealed. The horror!

No description available.

Fairly soon (a month or two after our deal), I saw the Bolland page appear on a pretty well known American dealer’s website. These two dealers had made their own trade and worked some kind of deal between themselves. The American dealer had it listed on his website for double the value the Italian dealer had given me on the page. I didn’t really mind because I really do love my Big Numbers page. I love it more than I did the early Bolland one and I wasn’t sure the Bolland would sell at the new inflated price. I’ve made mistakes in the past where I’ve sold pages waaay too early but here, at least I got something in exchange that I love even more. So, I suppose there is the monetary value a piece might have in ‘the market’ but there is also a personal value that is just as genuine or perhaps more genuine – and this can go up or down too; it is a personal valuation based on non-economic factors and one only has to make this transaction/appraisal with oneself.

I saw the American dealer at a convention not too long after that and he had the Bolland page along with all his other wares. It’s always weird when you see something you used to own being sold at an extravagant mark up. This serves to humble you and remind you that one never truly owns anything. One only participates in the matrix of transactions that constitute human behaviour. A nicer way to view it is to say that we’re only temporary caretakers of these things. They are as ephemeral and fleeting as feelings, as the nostalgia, that drive us to purchase these things. Now, I have seen the Bolland page move from the dealer’s site to a new owner’s page on Comic Art Fans so it’s probably undergone another of these clandestine trades. The new owner is selling it too, only he’s not listing a price, instead leaving the dreaded ‘Please Enquire for Price’ message in the place where a number should be. I’m sure that whatever price he’s hoping for exceeds what the American dealer was once asking for.

Oscar Wilde quote: What is a cynic? A man who knows the price...

Perhaps the page is really worth that much and perhaps it’s not. I really don’t know. They say prices have gone up during the pandemic. I’m sure my Big Numbers page hasn’t risen in value to anywhere near the same degree but once again, I truly don’t mind. I got dragged into collecting these things because of their meaning to me and that’s what I’ll stay rooted in. If I abandon that root motive and fixate instead on price, I’m sure that then I truly will become unhappy. At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore pricing in today’s art marketplace, the way it exists now. All I can say is that I feel incredibly lucky that the Bolland didn’t sell during that initial auction, luckier still that the open UPS package arrived with all its contents intact, and lucky most of all that I was able to parlay what I had towards what may be my favourite page that I own. These things have become a lot scarcer and like many people out there, I’m wondering whether to pursue buying art under the conditions that now govern its sale.

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