Eric Sack and the Underground: An Interview
The history of original comic art collecting is woefully under documented, due to still-evolving commercial, critical, academic, and institutional interest and reception, as well as the convoluted methods of distribution and routes to ownership of the physical artwork itself. After years spent ferreting out piecemeal information on the early history of original comic book and newspaper strip artwork (as well as pulp and paperback art) and how it survived, as well as related documentation on the collectors, dealers, and artists themselves—via fanzines, dealer and auction catalogs, occasional mentions in larger texts on comics, and in conversations—the importance of archiving as much primary, first-hand information as possible from those involved in the pioneering days of the 1960s through the 1980s became increasingly apparent. To that end, this is the first in a series of interviews delving into this endlessly fascinating history while the early participants are still accessible, which will hopefully help open the door to a lot more focused research.
Starting in the 1970s, Eric Sack began amassing the largest and most comprehensive collection in the world devoted to original artwork by the first- and second-generation American underground cartoonists. I’ve known Sack and worked with him on exhibitions over the last fifteen years—he’s always been an incredibly generous lender of art—and managed the sale of his collection through Heritage Auctions starting in fall 2016. So this interview, edited from a phone conversation on October 2, 2017, was a great opportunity to codify and expand on many of the subjects we’d touched on previously in both personal and professional capacities.
Todd Hignite: Let’s start off with a basic question—what’s the first piece of original comic art you purchased—was it when you encountered the dealer Norman Witty at a 1970s New York Phil Seuling Con?
Eric Sack: Well, those were the first underground artworks that I actually bought. Previously, I’d been interested in collecting the printed work of Thomas Nast from old issues of Harper’s Weekly—but yes, the first actual pen-and-ink artwork I bought was at that show in New York City, around 1977: three pages by Crumb and S. Clay Wilson. Robert had already started to draw a serial Mr. Natural comic for the Village Voice every week, and I bought one of those pages and a two-page story by S. Clay Wilson from one of the early Zaps, which was of course really intense—two ladies of the night interacting with Jesus in a way you would not expect to see in a comic book.
TH: What did you know about Norman Witty as a dealer?
ES: Norman was actually a very cool guy into lots of things—did you know him at all?
TH: Unfortunately, no.
ES: That’s a shame as he was a real character—I think his real passion, though it was always hard to get a straight answer from him, was European comic art. Very early on, he was going to all the European shows and basically trading American comic art to Europeans and coming back with European comic art to promote here. And of course, he found basically no interest here whatsoever for that art. But that was his main thing. I’m not sure exactly how he got started or of his exact connection to the underground artists, whether he just liked the art or it came through trades with the European artists—that’s possible, since the underground artists would often trade their art for work by other artists. But he also had very early on great Herrimans, great Fosters, great McCays.
He was based in Northampton, Massachusetts, during that time. I believe at some point a health issue caused him to start losing his hearing and he decided he was going to move to Manhattan, as many of us would like to do, and soak up as much culture as he could before his hearing was gone altogether, which started progressing quickly. So he went and bought a sweet little apartment in one of those beautiful Deco buildings on 57th street, around 7th, which is no slouch of a neighborhood—a beautiful, beautiful building that had just turned condo. I’m guessing this was in the early ’80s.
He’d invite me over to his place to see if there was something I wanted to buy. The apartment was gorgeous—real old-world beauty, and here he is with barely any furniture, but walls covered with great art. Every other piece was by a European artist. I had no idea what I was looking at with that, but there’d be a great S. Clay Wilson, a great Gilbert Shelton, along with the European art and great Herrimans. It was all really important stuff—my focus was always very narrow, I was an underground guy—but Norman had everything, in addition to the art, movie posters and all sorts of ephemera. So he was making all these connections, and he did it for a very long time. He was an early pioneer in the comic art world, doing those European shows regularly for years, and he had the passion, seemed to have a very good eye, and had great connections to find art. He just passed away a few years ago.
TH: How long had you been interested in underground comics prior to that first art purchase?
ES: I was shown my first underground comic book in high school, and I graduated in ’72—so I had been reading the undergrounds through the end of the ’60s, early ’70s, which was really close to the beginning of the whole thing. Prior to that, I was a big MAD magazine fan. For comic books of the 12-cent variety, I was always a funny comics kind of guy—Archie, Richie Rich, that genre, I was never really a superhero kind of guy.
TH: So your point of entry into the undergrounds makes sense from that trajectory—the humor of MAD, which was of course influential on the underground artists—but did you also respond strongly to the political engagement and topicality of the undergrounds, as opposed to more mainstream comic art?
ES: Sure, and it was really based in the whole thing that allowed the underground comics to exist in that period—the mix of the socio-political times in the late ’60s, of course the Vietnam War, and a president that a lot of people weren’t happy with, which certainly resonates today, and the fact that these books could be printed for the first time relatively inexpensively. So a lot of the artists were able to start self-publishing as sort of an extension of the fanzine world. I was a little too young to be into those, which came on in the 1950s and early ’60s—I was coming to the undergrounds from the mainstream comic world, and seeing that new subject matter in this traditional comic book format just flipped my wig. To see funny stories about sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, none of which existed in the mainstream format, was amazing—and they were downright funny.
Zap #0 was probably the first underground I saw, and for me, the way they were drawn, the lines that Robert used, just really sucked me in in a similar way as the funny animal comics. That softness of style was sort of the same as in the humor comics I had been reading, but of course the subject matter was a complete 180 to the other extreme.
TH: Do you remember how much those first art purchases cost back then?
ES: Yeah, they were all the same price: $150 a page, so $300 for the Wilson story and $150 for the Crumb. It was interesting as the years went by to see how which particular art would begin to command significantly higher prices based on the artist. For me, especially early on, it was always about how the specific piece of art spoke to me, rather than thinking about a given artist’s work going up in value. I could be as in love with a piece that I bought for $50 as one I later spent $5,000 for. Back then I never had an understanding of an art market per se—and I don’t think there really was one in terms of how to distinguish values. There were some dealer catalogs back then—I think Collectors Showcase?
TH: That was one [published by Leonard Brown and Malcolm Willits’ Collectors Book Store in Hollywood] and Tony Dispoto out of New Jersey put out catalogs [Comic Art Showcase], Jim Steranko [Cartoonists and Illustrators Portfolio]—and Russ Cochran in the Midwest [Graphic Gallery].
ES: Yeah, you would see prices in those, and little by little some artists would command more than others—but the fascinating thing I gradually started to notice is how something, say in the early ’80s, would be an expensive $1,000 and twenty years later would only be close to that still, or maybe $2,000, but other art in that same period would grow to $5,000 or more. So it was interesting to watch the market evolve as the interest in various artists changed. And it didn’t have anything to do with chronology, like I always thought it would coming from that Thomas Nast world—here was this guy doing the most amazing cross-hatching, documenting important historical events, and I could buy his original drawings in the early ’80s for between $200 to say $1,100, and even today some of the good ones can be had for $2,000! You would think because these were so early and well rendered from a godfather of the art form, that for all kinds of reasons those should be $10,000 or $20,000. But they’re not. So it’s an interesting question that I always discussed with other collectors, why such particular multiples started to happen.
TH: I think that’s always hard for collectors to wrap their heads around, especially early on—why aren’t values based on this agreed-upon hierarchy of what is important historically?
ES: Pop culture in general has a strong influence, of course—interestingly, as a parenthetical aside, that was one of the reasons I decided to sell the bulk of my collection when I did—I thought the market had peaked, because the collectors who were buying this stuff drawn in the late ’60s to the mid ’70s were getting to an age of deaccessioning rather than actively collecting, and I wasn’t sure there was another generation of collectors to take their place. But I was wrong!
As we know, the market took a big bump up with that first auction of my collection last year—those artists had never seen those kinds of numbers, which was unexpected. So, obviously there’s strength in that market. But I’d never sold anything, so I felt like maybe it was time to spread it around a little bit, and maybe, if I can say it, my collection influenced a renewed interest in the market for this art, these prime things becoming available, which the open market had never seen before. So I’ll take some credit for that.
TH: That’s absolutely true—it’s frustrating for collectors who may have an interest in a given type of art not to have any kind of regular access to great examples if they’re not part of a small circle, or aren’t friends with the group who holds all the most important art—that really hinders the market and prevents renewed interest.
ES: Yes, I think underground art needed exposure it hadn’t had to get that jumpstart. That’s kind of the basis for the comic art market in general: if you weren’t really on the inside, friends with the artists, etc., there wasn’t much access. When the exhibitions started happening in the late ’90s, early 2000s, museum curators always just assumed most of this underground art was lost to history, got trashed, destroyed, or whatever. And it was very impressive to these people in the fine art world to find out that the art actually existed. There have always been art collectors, but this particular genre was unique in that it never had real commercial exposure.
TH: That’s a good segue to discussing how you were able to acquire so much art—I know you were buying a lot directly from the artists, but did that happen pretty early on?
ES: Well, there was no real game plan with all of this—as with the genre of underground comics, the original art really was sort of underground. There wasn’t a big group of dealers; there wasn’t a strong connection between the artists that would represent an identifiable “school” or style, as you’d find in the fine art world. So everything was sort of scattered all over the place. Collectors had picked up a few things here and there because you could buy something great for $50 or $100 all through the ’70s. Through the early ’80s as well, a few hundred dollars was still a lot of money. But during the time, as far as collectors or dealers buying this art, they bought it like I did, because they liked it and had read the comic, rather than for some kind of investment.
TH: Could you find much art you were looking for from dealers in the early days of your collecting?
ES: I stumbled on a guy in those early years at a San Diego convention who had a lot of underground comics and some art, and who said if I ever wanted to buy more art to let him know—this was George DiCaprio.
TH: I wanted to ask about what his role was exactly—was he repping some of the artists?
ES: He wasn’t really, because there wasn’t really a market for the artists’ originals—few people were buying the original drawings. So he was mostly selling comics, with a few originals. As I understood it, he was distributing comics and living out of his station wagon, already at that time looking to make enough money to jumpstart his son’s acting career, to get professional photos, and acting lessons, thinking even at that early stage that Leo had something special. But he lived and worked with many of the artists, to whom he was extremely close. He was particularly close with Robert Williams, who I think was his connection to the other artists. Once I expressed an interest in original drawings, he told me he’d help me find them from the artists directly, and the artists would then give him a drawing as his commission for making the deal, which he’d then sell to help fund his kid’s acting lessons and so forth.
That was kind of the next jump with me finding originals, through George. I bought a lot of Crumb art through him, and I bought a lot of Wilson drawings through him. We kept in touch for a while, but once his son’s career took off, I lost touch. But he had the passion, and he was a publisher, and an artist a little bit—he was really tapped in early on at the beginning of the underground art scene, including with light shows and psychedelic effects for rock bands. He was very much a part of that whole world, and after the pieces I got from Norman, George was the next big connection for me—and he was a pretty straight guy, and I think probably told Wilson I was the guy buying all of this art by him, so before long Wilson went directly to me to see if I wanted to buy more. I started buying from him, and from Robert once George made that connection. So, little by little one told another and I started buying a whole lot of stuff, including from Skip Williamson, who was still in Chicago at the time. And like many of the artists, Skip had art by others—they’d trade amongst themselves, so for example later when I was buying from Jay Lynch, he also had pieces by Robert, Wilson had pieces by Spain, and it just kind of built up in that way, I guess with them inevitably telling the other artists that this guy outside of Philadelphia likes your stuff, and then they’d contact me directly.
TH: How did you find the artists’ relationship with their originals back then—did they value their art highly, or have any issues with parting with it, wanting to hold things back?
ES: Rarely did anyone think there was any kind of market for it at all. One of the commercial exceptions I was aware of was with S. Clay Wilson, who had actually published a price list in ’80, ’82, something like that. And it was amazing because he listed all his early Zap work.
TH: It’s sort of amazing that he’d still held onto that early art.
ES: Yeah, but I don’t know that it’s amazing he still had it—I don’t think he consciously held onto it—I’m almost tempted to say he still had it because nobody else really wanted it, you know? There were a few artists who really took pride in their originals and tried never to sell them, such as Art Spiegelman, who really tried to hold onto everything. I think once there was an awareness that there was any value whatsoever to this stuff, say the low hundreds of dollars not thousands, I found the artists were very eager to sell. They weren’t seeing this kind of money from creating the comics, which did not generate a lot of bucks, certainly not for the artists, but not for the publishers, printers, and distributors, either—the whole thing was a phenomenon more than anything else, and I don’t think anyone was making real money. So for them to get a hundred dollars, or three, four, five hundred for a page of art was really meaningful just in terms of their sustenance, just to stay alive. That was a big deal, so if someone was interested, one just wound up telling another that there was someone willing to pay a little more than the few dealers out there, who I think were paying almost nothing.
TH: Who were some of the other dealers you knew about?
ES: One who comes to mind was Jerry Weist, who had one of the early comic stores in Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Million Year Picnic. Very early on, he had an eye for the underground artists and acquired and represented sales for them. I don’t know how much Jerry was paying, but it was a business for him, so he was paying dealer prices, not collector prices. I wound up acquiring a number of very significant things from him—but the artists, when they were able to sell directly to a collector rather than a dealer, got a whole lot more money. So it was good for them, and it was sure great for me because I loved the interaction and I was able to acquire art that they’d held forever, so early pieces—and as I mentioned, they inevitably had other artists’ work, too, and would recommend that those other artists contact me.
So little by little I was acquiring better things, very likely paying more than the dealers, though I don’t even know the exact details of what the artists had been selling for. The prices seemed fair to me, I could afford it at the time, and I loved the stuff so I bought it. Otherwise, very occasionally things would start to show up in dealer catalogs—mainly dealers of newspaper strip art, not comic book art—if they had 500 listings, maybe by accident there might be a Jay Lynch drawing from Playboy or something, a Crumb drawing once in awhile.
TH: Were you the main collector buying directly from the artists early on—did you have much competition?
ES: It seemed like maybe there were a few others around. But I think I had… what’s the word, a fervor that other collectors didn’t have [laughter]. It was a situation that maybe there was someone else buying a piece from an artist every year, or two, or five, while I was buying a piece every month or two. It wasn’t until later that more people got interested. I remember one specific transaction, much later, probably in the ’90s, when Wilson offered me two drawings—in fact two of his earliest, including the very first piece from Zap #2  called “Head First,” and a piece called “Gilded Moments” [Zap #3, 1969], done in a very different style, both of which he had just unearthed from his piles of stuff. He asked if I was interested, which I was, and we discussed money, then some period of time later he told me someone else was interested in “Head First,” and asked if I’d buy the other alone. Fortunately for me, I got tough and said I’d buy both or none, and it worked out—but gradually, I did become aware that others were getting interested.
TH: What immediately struck you upon seeing the originals themselves versus the printed comics?
ES: Well, the underground comics were often printed in such small formats, and of course the originals were much more substantial. And the printing of those early books was relatively pulpy, they weren’t lithos or meant to be fine-art reproductions, anything that was meant to have longevity—like the funnies in the newspaper, this was a disposable art form, to be appreciated for the moment, passed from dorm room to dorm room, and never meant to be anything more. So the blacks were not these rich tones, the paper was not substantial—so then to see an original, and to be able to appreciate the richness of the inks, and the size, and in some cases the process through blue lines and white out, all of which gave some indication of the creation, was really great.
Unlike an oil painting, let’s say, when the artist puts ink to paper, that’s kind of it, and one thing that was amazing in these originals is how little changes were evident for the most part. More often than not, when the pen hit the paper, that’s what was published, and I really appreciated that craft.
TH: I was always impressed by this precision when viewing the art in your collection—the originals read more like fine art drawings than mainstream comic book originals as they’re singular and so clean without other hands making corrections, demonstrating what great technical artists they were across the board.
ES: Interestingly, Rick Griffin was an artist who made the most changes, and he would do it by laying a piece of paper on top of the original rather than using white out—he’d cut out an unusual shape and apply that on top of the original drawing—I loved seeing all of that: the size, the richness, and in some cases an insight into how it was created.
And I was always attached to the subject matter and the art form for what it was, so when it became available and I could afford it, I jumped at the chance. I can tell you there was never any thought that it was going to be valuable in the future or that I was going to buy this in addition to some other kind of art I’m collecting, or that these people were going to be famous one day. It just appealed to me as an art form—I always liked black-and-white drawings, I loved the stories, I loved that they all had a great sense of humor, and many of those stories I liked the most were rendered very well, so they had good execution. Those were the first things that went through my mind. But I never thought they were going to have this big money value, or thought about other people liking it—if anything, there were a lot of times I thought “I can’t believe I’m dumping all this money into this, nobody’s ever gonna give me half my money back, forget about a profit” [laughter]. I just felt compelled, I can’t tell you otherwise.
TH: There are lots of stories about Crumb trading away his originals for rare records he wanted for his collection. Did you have any first-hand experience with that?
ES: That wasn’t my experience, just because being the anal collector I am, I pretty much never traded anything for anything [laughter]. Once I got my mitts on something, I never let it loose. You’d like to think that’s why a collector is a collector, that you don’t do it for the monetary gain, but because you really like it. For me, it was always a case of, if I saw something I liked and I could afford it, I got it, and didn’t want to give it up. And I also wasn’t a music collector, so I was only aware of those stories about Robert second hand.
TH: Can you talk about Gary Arlington a little bit, and your relationship? His role as a publisher and shop owner are both of course hugely important, but what was his role in the world of art?
ES: I knew of him the way all readers did, as a publisher from the bylines in the comics, and I used to get his mail-order brochures under the nom de plume of Eric Fromm, so understanding he was in the business of underground comics was about all I knew early on. As I started to acquire more art, and a bit more of the history came to the surface for me, I understood his place in the field, that he was almost a way station in this railroad. Many artists worked at his store, many traded art for a place to sleep, so he had a very close connection with many of the artists. I knew he was into ECs, and I also knew that he always had a sort of dealer mentality, that he prided himself on being a businessman as much as anything else. And if he didn’t pride himself on it, it was apparent from his behavior. You knew that if he said something, the end result was business [laughter].
When I first contacted him, sending him letters, I thought I could connect with him, but was never really able to—for whatever reason we just weren’t able to get together. But that was early on, and much later, probably the early ’90s, I was on a family trip with a stopover in San Francisco, and I was resolved to meet this guy. So I broke away from my family for a couple of hours and went down to the Mission District and found this real junky storefront piled high with so much stuff you couldn’t walk. He was there and we started a conversation, and I think he sensed that I was somebody who was going to pay money for this stuff. Again, there were very few people who would, even at that time. But all we did was talk, and he teased me with a piece of art or two, and he had some printing plates and things he showed me, and one of his own sketchbooks that he got artists to draw in whenever they came by, which I later heard he had about a dozen of. Nothing happened, but we kept in touch, and little by little—because he was a unique individual [laughter], you had to gain his confidence, which I gradually did.
And I can say that in the years after I gained that confidence, I acquired some of the most important pieces of art in my collection from him. Probably the most important was the cover for [R. Crumb’s] Head Comix : he’d acquired it from Robert directly and published it as one of the pages in his Nickel Library series. But I was able to acquire that, among a number of other things. What he’d do was put together a package of 10 or 20 drawings and send me photocopies. And it was always the same story—we did this four, five, or six times—after I got the package, I’d immediately call him and say “How much do you want, I want to buy them all,” and he’d say “I want a million dollars.” Then I’d offer a price that I thought was fair, and it was way more than anyone else would have offered, and he would then always say yes. So I’d send him the money, he’d send me the art, and we did this four or five times. Always the same exact routine.
He was already starting to have a lot of physical problems during this period, and I heard through mutual acquaintances that he would always tell friends, including Spain, that without the money I was giving him, he didn’t think he would have been able to live. And that felt good. I never took advantage of that situation because I always felt I was paying a fair price. He was happy, I was happy. And he’d then call and talk with me for an hour or two, but I always felt like he felt he was obliged to talk with me, sort of like keeping the patron happy, whereas I would have been perfectly happy if he would’ve just told me a few stories about acquiring the art instead of talking for hours about his toe problems, or whatever [laughter]! But he was more interested in telling me about a new brand of shoe during these oddball conversations [laughter].
He was a real character and I really enjoyed our relationship for a good many years. Again, we did this a number of times, but then another collector got his ear and gave him the impression that I was taking advantage of him, which I never, ever felt I was, and then Gary stopped communicating with me—which was very sad, because I thought we had a genuine relationship, and I always enjoyed him and his stories, a lot of which sadly never got told. But as I mentioned before, I think at the end of the day, it always came down to business for him, so…
TH: Can you tell me about your relationship with Jay Kennedy?
ES: Because I was not a 70-, 80-, or 90-year-old guy, with all my friends dying anyway, it was one of the greatest shocks to me when I heard that Jay Kennedy had passed away at such a young age. My wife still to this day mentions how affected I was by it, even more so than with relatives passing. But Jay was one of the earliest collectors who had a strong passion for the underground comic art field, and one I found out existed early on, and there weren’t a lot of us. And while I was always a collector of the original drawings, I was also after anything that was unique or odd in the printed versions, posters, brochures, advertising material, unique variants of a publication, small press runs, tabloids especially, because they were published early during the beginnings of underground comics. Without places like The East Village Other, I don’t think any of the comics would have existed, or these artists would have banded together. So to me, anything EVO was really the center of the art form, and Jay very much felt the same way.
So we were both at the same time attempting to put together complete runs of the East Village Other. Since we both felt so strongly about the significance, we started to get in touch and trade duplicate issues, and wound up doing one of the rarest of collector behaviors: we actually invited each other to see our collections. Which is, was, and will continue to be a rare phenomenon among collectors [laughter]. Typically collectors acquire and hoard this stuff, sit in their locked room lording over it, and never once show it to anyone else. I can’t tell you why, but I’ve seen it over and over again.
But we just hit it off in a way that was as much a friendship as a common interest, and we’d visit each other, which was a lot of fun. The competitive collector thing was never paramount, it was more “it’s amazing this exists,” and something we appreciated historically, this art form we both had a passion for. Then years later he sold me one of the few originals he owned—his passion was much more printed material and ephemera—but he owned the [Crumb] “Angelfood McSpade” story from Zap #2 . I paid him a lot of money at the time, but I thought it was important, and he thought it was important.
Jay really had the passion, and created one of the most important reference works in the field [The Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide, 1982], which was huge. And when he passed, he had an entire garage full of stuff, which mostly went to the Billy Ireland [Cartoon Library & Museum]. But I enjoyed his company and I miss him, that’s all I can tell you.
TH: During all the years, were there any pieces of art you’d been looking for from the beginning that you were never able to uncover?
ES: Of course, there’s always that handful of holy grails that I’ve looked for, and other collectors have as well, that have still never shown up—which I really don’t like to talk about, in case a lead does come up!
TH: Such as Crumb’s “Stoned Again” art, which we’d talked about a little at one point?
ES: Well, if you do your homework, you can get leads on some of this stuff. We’re very lucky to have had really good historians in this field, who have put together a lot of information. One is a guy named Donald Fiene [author of R. Crumb Checklist of Works and Criticism, 1981], Jay Kennedy was very important, and Jerry Weist was important, too—all have made reference to works that exist and had never come to market. Nobody had ever seen the alternative Zap #1 cover  until Fiene published it, and he referenced a number of things like that, some of which later showed up and I was able to acquire, such as that one. But there are others that are important that have never been unearthed.
There was one Crumb piece that I searched years for, that when it finally came up I started to shake a little bit—it was during a period of one of Crumb’s periodic bumps in price, which went from a hundred dollars to five hundred, then a thousand to five thousand, then five thousand to fifty thousand—there have always been these escalation periods based on market conditions that you have to adjust to. So there was a sketchbook page that always excited me, which was not only from a sketchbook, but was one of the few drawings published as a cover for the Berkeley Barb, which was the California version of the East Village Other, but not nearly as strong on comics and art [the sketchbook page was drawn in 1967 and later published as the cover for the December 3-9, 1971 issue of the Berkeley Barb.] The Barb rarely had a hand-drawn cover; mostly they used text and graphics, photographs.
This image was of three young ladies in a famous pose from classical paintings called The Three Graces—this was kind of Robert Crumb’s rendition of it. Instead of these Botticelli women, these were his big, heavy-bodied young women wearing panties. The drawing fascinated me both for its historical reference and how fast it appeared to me that he’d rendered it—this fast sketch that still looked totally complete. I always wanted to own that drawing and after searching for about fifteen years, I saw it in a dealer’s inventory. He didn’t know it was a Berkeley Barb cover, just a sketchbook page, and he only knew it was important because I expressed interest in it [laughter]. But I was able to buy it, and it was subsequently used as the poster for our Crumb exhibition at the ICA in Philadelphia [R. Crumb’s Underground, which originated at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, in 2007, and among other venues traveled to the ICA in 2008], which had the biggest turnout for the museum behind only one other exhibition for another artist having his first US museum show—Andy Warhol in the ’60s.
TH: In talking about the periodic bumps in the Crumb market, I know Alex Acevedo represented one of these.
ES: I would say he was the most significant in terms of a price jump. Here was a guy who had an elegant Madison Avenue art and antiques gallery [Alexander Gallery] showing classic art at an important location in an important city. He had always collected American School paintings, 18th- and 19th-century paintings, early ceramics, had a good eye for fine jewelry—he always had a good eye for unique art, and one day he decided he was going to have a show of Robert Crumb’s art. He had not been on anyone’s radar when he started acquiring, but because he came from an art world where fine things didn’t cost hundreds of dollars to buy, they cost thousands of dollars, he had no qualms about buying and offering Crumb art at these kinds of prices, because he though the art was fine. Because he thought Crumb was a talent, he had no problem paying prices that nobody was paying. If I was paying $500, he was paying $2,500.
So he amassed a highly significant portfolio of Crumb drawings, enough to create a magnificent show, a magnificent hardcover catalog [R. Crumb, A Retrospective, catalog for the exhibition that ran from November 1-December 23, 1993], and had a great opening on Halloween in conjunction with a huge opening by H.R. Giger. The Crumb opening was well received, but the market wasn’t ready for the prices he had paid and was subsequently charging. However, because he had paid those prices, they almost became a baseline moving forward. I’m sure that guys like Glenn Bray will tell you they acquired Robert’s drawings for $25-$50, and it was not that much later that dealers were charging $100. So when I bought that drawing from Norman for $150, that was a bump. But this jump from $1,500 to $15,000 was huge. I think after Alex, the next big jump really happened because of the greater exposure through auction houses, like Jerry [Weist]’s 1990s sales at Sotheby’s, and then with Heritage. That kind of public exposure led to the next big bump.
TH: For me, Acevedo’s catalog also played a big role in the changing acceptance of the art as art, because it was so beautifully produced, and really the first to present comic art in that way.
ES: Exactly, it was classy and very well produced. But as collector lore goes, Alex was so disappointed by the results from the sales of the art, that he destroyed three quarters of the books.
TH: Conventions have always been a huge buying opportunity for comic art—all this time we’ve been talking about, were you regularly going to comic conventions looking for art?
ES: Once I got serious about collecting and acquiring pretty early on, yes, I would go to the comic cons, which were getting a lot bigger—the New York show was becoming important, and the smaller Phil Seuling format was going away—it was becoming a big business—but I went to all of them I could on the east coast and the west coast, whether there was a big one, or smaller local ones, looking for underground originals and the rare publications. But other than Norman at that first convention, none of the dealers brought underground art to the comic cons.
I even once put a little ad in the back of The New Yorker in the 1990s—they had great cartoons and I thought, “you know, this could be the great direction for the art form.” Interestingly enough, once Françoise [Mouly] got involved and started getting in the next generation of underground artists, it did in fact turn out to be a home base for the art form; so my thought was right, but I guess my timing was off. But I ran a series of consecutive ads in a row stating, “Interested in acquiring anything related to the underground comic art movement,” with the little image of Mr. Natural. Even this little one-inch ad was a fortune—so it ran a handful of times and I spent a ridiculous sum of money, and just like the comic cons I went to, not one piece of art was acquired. Nobody brought underground art to the comic cons I went to, and nobody responded to my New Yorker ads [laughter]. The only response I got was two months after my last ad ran—which didn’t have my name, just a PO Box—some guy writes to me and says “I saw your ad awhile back, tell me what your interest is in these underground comics, I too have an interest,” signed “Denis Kitchen” [laughter]. Who of course I already had a relationship with—the only guy to respond!
But never did I acquire originals from comic cons or from advertising, or any kind of marketing. I even advertised in the local art theater publication when the Crumb movie came out and was playing there. Not one person responded to the ad! It was just another reaffirmation of my belief that virtually nobody ever read these underground comics, let alone had seen any of the original art. There were just a handful of people in the country who had any interest in this stuff. Every year I would buy more art, and every year I’d ask myself “How crazy am I to be pouring all this money into this and nobody even knows what the heck I’m talking about.” It wasn’t until something like the late ’90s that the first museum curator contacted me, having heard about the collection from a friend of a friend, that things started to change. That contact was the first time anybody came to me and said, “This is really interesting.” Before that, there were a lot of times I was really scratching my head wondering why I was doing it—“My wife thinks I’m crazy, my friends think I’m crazy, my bank definitely thinks I’m crazy. Nobody’s getting this.” The rest is history, but for a long time, nobody got it.
TH: Is it possible to narrow it down to your favorite piece of art?
ES: Well, maybe a few—in addition to that Three Graces drawing, which is nowhere near the most valuable but really resonated with me in so many ways, I would say of the pieces I acquired that will be acknowledged as some of the art form’s most important, number one would be the Crumb cover to Head Comix. Then either of the Crumb East Village Other covers [“Can The Mind Know It?” EVO vol. 3, #43, September 27, 1968, and “Burned Out,” EVO vol. 5, #10, February 11, 1970]—all of these because of the size, significance, and the period. Then the wrap-around cover for San Francisco Comix #3 . That also really speaks to the period, and the suburban horror of the hippies, and it’s also a really big, impressive image. So I think those will all really continue to speak to the importance of the art form.