Early in 2010, The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death by Todd Hignite was published by well-known art book publisher Abrams. This monograph was beautifully designed, with page after page of original art, sketches, poster art, partially completed drawings, color guides and more. The text was incisive and sensitive. I suspect any comics artist would be thrilled to have a monograph like this one written about their work. I would love to see more books like this.

In addition to being a writer, Hignite is Consignment Director for Heritage Auctions. Heritage Auctions is an auction house based in Dallas, TX. It primarily sells work in internet auctions, although it does also have floor sales. To quote Heritage’s website, “Heritage Auction Galleries is the largest collectibles auctioneer and third largest auction house in the world. We are also the undisputed Internet leader in our field.” That field includes a lot of comics and comics art.

In the past, Heritage has been somewhat weak on alternative or underground comics. They seem to have been making an effort over the past year to correct this. There has been a good deal of high-quality underground comix artwork sold (including a lot of very expensive items by Robert Crumb), and since March of 2010, there has been more-or-less weekly sales of Jaime Hernandez pages.

I was curious about this. Was there a relation with the book coming out and the pages becoming available? I asked Hignite, and he told me that it was a coincidence and added that he didn’t think his book had any effect on prices. “I’m not sure the “Art of…” book meant too terribly much to Jaime’s market.  His reputation was made long ago.” Most of the work that has been sold in 2010 comes from a single consigner. This is someone Hignite knew and had hoped for a long time would put the collection up for auction. It just happened to roughly coincide with the book being shipped.

I also suggested to Hignite that contrary to ECON 101, increased supply might cause prices to increase. Hignite agreed. “Much more important [than the release of The Art of Jaime Hernandez] is—exactly as you note—the availability of the art in our auctions week after week.  It sounds somewhat counter-intuitive as ‘rarity’ always seems to equal value in the popular imagination (and of course there is some truth to it on a case-by-case basis), but in the auction business a major factor for a healthy market whereby prices remain strong and rise incrementally is actually steady availability.” His reasoning for this phenomenon was that regular sales  gave information (and confidence) to buyers.

“Many collectors need to see what comparable examples are selling for in order to feel confident bidding at a certain level.  Also, if a collector decides they’d like to have an example by a certain artist, and they only come up once every few years, a certain percentage get bored and move on to the next thing.  As a collector of his art myself, I always thought Jaime’s originals should be at least in the range that they’ve been selling for recently, but they were very difficult to find (other than from him for a number of years—and most people didn’t know that he sold them directly).”

Has this selling strategy worked? I was curious. Fortunately, Heritage Auctions gives one some tools for researching this. One can look at previously realized prices on work. Prior to March 2010, Heritage had only sold only four pages of Jaime Hernandez work in six years. Since then, they have sold 48 pieces that I recorded. (One more will be sold by the time I finish writing this piece.) To examine how Jaime Hernandez artwork is valued by the market, I created a database of all the artwork sold. For each piece, I included the price, the auction date, the issue it came from, the year it was drawn, the story it was part of, whether or not there was any nudity on the page, and whether or not certain characters—Maggie, Hopey, Izzy, Penny, Rena, Rand, Speedy, Doyle, Danita, and Ray—appeared on the page. My hope was to see if there were any pricing trends. I examined this data in several ways, up to and including doing a regression analysis to see if one could use this data in a predictive way.

graph 1

Graph 1 displays the average realized price for Jaime Hernandez art sold on any given auction day. The first thing one notices is that the graph is extremely “noisy”—there are large jumps in value from week to week. One might be able to say there is a downward trend over time, but with this much noise I would be reluctant to draw any conclusion. Here are the relevant statistics:

Statistic price
No. of observations 48
Minimum $538
Maximum $4,780
1st Quartile $956
Median $1,434
3rd Quartile $2,749
Mean $1,902
Standard deviation $1,234

The range between the highest and lowest price is $4242. Graph 1 doesn’t suggest any reason why the data might vary so much, so let’s dig into the data a little more. Might certain periods in Jaime’s work be more valued than others? One way we could visualize this is a graph of price versus year the artwork was produced. (Jaime is pretty good about dating his artwork—not as good as Gary Panter, though, who puts a date on ever single page!) Graph 2 shows this relationship.

graph 2

Aside from a huge jump for art produced in 1996, no obvious trend presents itself. There was only one piece drawn in 1996 that was sold, and it was extremely anomalous. It was the only cover sold (figure 1)—the rest were interior pages.  However, it wasn’t the most expensive page sold in 2010 (figure 2).

figure 1 -- Chester Square collection cover

figure 2 -- CampVicki, page 1

This page was singled out by Ng Suat Tong back in October as a particularly dramatic page that had fetched a high price. As it turned out, this was the peak (so far) for Jaime Hernandez artwork sold through Heritage.

But we’re no closer to determining why certain pages sell for higher prices than others. I theorized that certain characters might be coveted by collectors. Also, it seemed to me that given Hernandez’s remarkable figure drawing, pages that included nude figures might sell for more. I tried to show this graphically in graph 3.

graph 3 -- Minimum, maximum and average price per page by character

Graph 3 shows the highest price, lowest price and average price realized for pages featuring certain characters. (I wanted to include Rand Race and Speedy, but no pages featuring those characters were sold.) Not surprisingly, Maggie had the largest range, which reflects the large number of pages on which she appears as well as her centrality to Jaime’s work. On average, it looks like pages featuring female characters outsell pages with male characters. Pages with nudity seem to command a bit of a premium as well. That said, the range is so great that it is really hard to make any kind of definite statement—a “Maggie” page will probably outsell a “Ray” page, but not necessarily.

So for a final piece of statistical analysis, I ran a multiple regression. Here all the data affects the outcome. The dependant variable was price, and the independent variables were sales date, the year the page was produced, the presence of the characters, and whether or not there was nudity. The idea here was to produce something predictive—something that I could use to anticipate the price of any piece being auctioned. If I could do this, I could draw some conclusions about the relative importance of all the combined elements.

Without getting too technical, the model thrown up by this data is not good. (The R-squared value is too small and the p-values are too big.) The problems with the model tell me that there is information that has a big effect on price that I am not capturing. Indeed, it may be information that cannot be captured—for example, the collective subjective feeling of how “rich” a small group of collectors feel on any given day of the year.  Since I know nothing about the buyers and other bidders for this work (except for myself), I can’t include data about them in any predictive model. But still, I attempted to build a predictive model here, so why not try it out?

On December 26, a page by Jaime Hernandez was auctioned off. This page is not in the database, so a good predictive model should be able to approximate what the page would sell for. The page for sale is the first page of “The Night Ape Sex Came Home to Play”, originally published in Love & Rockets #24 in 1987 (figure 3).

figure 3

It includes Maggie (and Daffy, but I didn’t put Daffy in the database) and there is no nudity. Given all these variables, the regression model predicted it should sell for $1,458, which turns out to be very close to the median price for all the previous pieces sold, $1,434. (The median price is the price for which half of the prices are higher than it and half the prices are lower.) However, the actual realized price was $3,346. So much for the model!

Two concluding thoughts—Heritage Auctions has a huge database of auction results. Someone a little more single-minded than me could do some very interesting analysis with all the comics artwork they’ve sold. And for the rest of us, it is handy for seeing how well pieces we might be interested in buying or selling have done—but keep in mind that there can be really large, inexplicable variations in price. The piece you want to sell might go on the market on a bad week.

Second, these prices seem, well, really cheap. Jaime Hernandez is one of the greatest comics artists of all time, as far as I am concerned. Indeed, as one who has bought a variety of comics artwork through Heritage Auctions, the thing that continually amazes me is how cheaply we buy and sell this precious artistic heritage. It’s not the same in Europe, as far as I can tell. When you see prices for Artcurial auctions or at BD Artist(e) gallery, they seem significantly higher than the prices here on average. (It’s hard to do a side-by-side analysis, of course. It is possible to research historical realized prices through Artcurial, but it is somewhat more difficult than with Heritage.) My theory is that there are not enough institutional collectors of comics art in the United States—if this work were in the collections of more American museums, originals would be more valuable. But until that happens, I will keep buying original comic strip and alternative/underground comics art, and feel privileged to be the temporary custodian of these pieces of art history. I feel like I am holding them now for some museum to own in the future. Now all I have to do is find a museum that wants them.


Note by Noah: Robert Boyd writes regularly at his blog The Great God Pan Is Dead.

Tags: , , , ,