Every now and then, someone asks me to authenticate, evaluate or even identify a piece of anime or manga art. I always say no, though I try to help out as much as possible with some advice and suggestions for further research.
Why do I say no? Three reasons: because it takes up time I don’t have to spare; because authenticating art requires time, study and skill; and because a work’s value depends on fashion, the state of the market locally and worldwide, and how badly the buyer wants it.
Markets are so fickle, and tastes changes so fast, that there are only two bits of valid guidance any so-called expert can ever give to a collector: buy what you love for its own sake and not for any possible increase in value, and don’t pay more than you can afford. If you’re spending a few thousand yen on a cel from your favourite old show, you’re unlikely to go far wrong, but if the sum involved is the equivalent of your return plane ticket to Japan, or your next month’s rent, you should do some homework first.
I hear from three kinds of potential buyers: fans looking for examples of their favourite artists’ works, cel collectors buying up old-school animation images, and modern art buyers venturing into a new field in search of adventure, excitement and profit. They all need to make the same checks and ask the same questions. Here are the tips and cautions I’ve given them, ranging from stating-the-bleeding-obvious to things you might not have thought of.
1) If you’re considering spending a lot of money in Japan, and don’t speak fluent Japanese, take someone who does with you to help. Misunderstandings happen even when buyer and seller speak the same language, so minimise the risk from the start.
2) Don’t be reassured or put off by the store/seller. The work is the same, whether you’re buying from a grungy cupboard deep in the warrens of Nakano Broadway, an insider memorabilia store, a suitcase in a flea-market or an upmarket gallery where all the assistants wear anonymously classy outfits. You aren’t paying for atmosphere.
3) Do some homework. It may be hard to resist a bargain, especially if someone offers you a cel from Zeta Gundam or Nausicaa of the Valley of Winds, a sketch from My Neighbour Totoro plucked from Hayao Miyazaki’s rubbish bin or a signed Tezuka original, but check it out before you hand over your cash. Look for examples of the artist’s signature and make copies for comparison. Have a look at similar material, physically if you can. Get a feel for how an authentic piece of the kind you’re being offered looks and what it costs.
4) If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. If you want a particular item, spend some time online or in other stores looking at the prices these things normally go for. Studio Ghibli cels, for example, are rarely inexpensive even if they show only very minor characters. Ghibli background paintings very rarely, if ever, reach the market. Yoshitaka Amano limited-edition prints are fine art products of high quality and the price-tag will reflect that. A big discrepancy should ring alarm bells, so ask why it’s so inexpensive.
5) Authenticate before you buy. It’s worth knowing where and when the seller acquired the piece, and how he knows it’s authentic. You might not get an answer. Perhaps the seller is a flea-market hobbyist who picks up goods and sells them on as part of the process of improving his own collection, in which case he may not keep records. Anyone who dug discarded cels out of a bin or backlot in a studio may not want to admit it. A store or gallery, though, should have a record of the purchase and should have taken steps to ensure the goods are not stolen and are genuine.
6) Look at the piece very closely. This is easier if you’ve done some homework. Take your time. Check the condition of the piece. Is it as you’d expect for something of its age and kind? For example, if it’s a painted background from a 70s giant robot anime, it will have been used for several shots and had to stand rough handling, so it may be oversize and on heavy paper or board. It may have marks, creases, chipped or flaking paint. A cel or key drawing, however, will be a standard size. Unless it’s very old indeed, it will have registration holes along the top edge which were used to align it in the rostrum camera for photography. (Tadahito Mochinaga built the first rostrum camera in Japan for Mitsuyo Seo’s Ant Boy in 1941. Chances are any anime cels you’ll see on sale postdate that.) Manga art is usually executed on standard-sized boards, but the standards change depending on the publisher or era. The more thoroughly you’ve done your research, the more likely you’ll get what you’re paying for.
7) Look for signatures, seals, editorial or studio notations. Cels that were actually used in production will have a number on the key drawing, sometimes along the upper edge, indicating its place in the shooting sequence. Manga art will sometimes have marginal notes, perhaps a publication date or issue number, maybe a studio or publisher’s stamp or seal.
Finally, consider the production process and ongoing uses for the art. A signed original frame from a manga, pasted onto a mount, is an unlikely thing to find. Why would the artist cut up an original page, paste it on a board and sign the result? A mounted, signed promotional card, or a signed sketch done for a fan at a convention or book launch, isn’t so unusual. Modern anime made entirely in the computer may still have design concept sketches.
If you want to buy into Japanese pop culture, you’re part of a long tradition. It’s been making incursions into the contemporary art world since the Victorian era, when not only Britain, but Europe and America were fascinated by the images coming out of a country that had been closed off from the rest of the world for over two hundred years. The market in Japanese and Japanese-inspired artefacts boomed.
In the late 20th century, as Japan’s popular culture was exported worldwide through TV and the Internet, anime and manga artists like Osamu Tezuka and Yoshitaka Amano blazed a trail with major exhibitions around the world, while contemporary fine artists such as Takashi Murakami, founder of the Superflat movement, took the influence of their native popular culture into the rarified world of fine art, with its exclusive galleries and high price tags. Toys, posters, and a host of other products are there in plenty, but some collectors still want to own a piece of their favourite medium’s hand-crafted history.
The rule is the same as ever: let the buyer beware. Take a little time and trouble to check out your purchase, and you’ll have a piece of art you can enjoy for years to come. Happy hunting!