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Out of 'Toon

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But when the drawings surfaced at a high-end Manhattan gallery, Bruce Hamilton knew they were something more. A cartoon collector and appraiser from Prescott, Arizona, Hamilton had been asked to authenticate the drawings by would-be buyer Stephen Geppi, owner of Baltimore-based Diamond Comics Distributors, one of the largest distributors in the world.

"I'd seen so much storyboard art in the Disney archives that I was probably as qualified as anybody in the world to make a judgment about authenticity," says Hamilton, who has appraised the Walt Disney Company's collection. He told Geppi that the drawings looked like the sequence for the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, "Plane Crazy." If so, the drawings predated any known to exist. As for their worth, Hamilton knew that a single Mickey Mouse animation cell had recently sold for $400,000; these alpha drawings had to be worth somewhere in the millions.

Drawn in 1927 by Ub Iwerks, the six pages that make up "Plane Crazy" are a crude prototype of what became known as the animation storyboard, in which each panel is drawn on a separate sheet of paper and tacked to a four-foot-by- eight-foot board. The order is then rearranged as needed. "Plane Crazy" has six panels per page and outlines Mickey's foray into flying. Inspired by aviator Charles Lindbergh, Mickey builds a plane, takes Minnie for a hair-raising ride -- during which he attempts to kiss her and gets slapped -- and then crashes.

"Iwerks was one of the most gifted, natural, and fast artists in the history of the Disney company," Hamilton says. "He was turning out hundreds of drawings a day. He didn't spend very long on this."

Hamilton valued the drawings at $3.2 million in an appraisal he completed in late 1994. Several subsequent appraisals set the value as high as $5 million. Geppi bought the drawings, though he has not disclosed what he paid for them. When Mort and Catherine Walker visited Geppi in Baltimore to ask him to join the board of trustees of the International Museum of Cartoon Art, Geppi offered to donate the sketches. Walker refers to "Plane Crazy" as the "Mona Lisa of the museum."

Walker says Geppi donated the sketches with no strings attached. (Geppi did not return messages left at his office by New Times.) Because its initial fundraising had been less successful than anticipated, the museum in 1995 put up the drawings as collateral for a $3 million construction loan to move forward. "Plane Crazy" was displayed after the museum opened in 1996.

The museum still owed about $1 million on the loan at the time SunTrust Bank moved to foreclose on the mortgage and seize the drawings last summer. However, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Walter Colbath in August 2000 ordered that the drawings remain temporarily in the custody of the museum; a placard would be placed beside the display indicating that SunTrust owns the sketches. The museum and bank commenced private mediation, announcing in December that SunTrust would give the museum several more months to pay the debt.

In the meantime that late summer and fall, more bail-out schemes were incubated, but none hatched. A proposal in August to move the Boca Raton Public Library into the museum went nowhere. Then, in November, the owners of the Museum of Miniatures in Los Angeles put the kibosh on speculation that it would merge with the cartoon museum. The owners, Carole and Barry Kaye of Boca Raton, chose instead to retire and sell the miniature reproductions of buildings and landmarks, valued at $25 million. Jim and Marta Batmasian, Boca real-estate investors, broached the idea of opening a human rights museum beside the cartoon display. Nothing has come of that idea.

Walker, who says he's sunk about $2 million of his own money into the museum, had long fought the notion of selling the "Plane Crazy" storyboards. But when no large donor stepped forward by this winter, the museum announced it would auction off the Mickey Mouse art in May, along with original art from the "Dick Tracy," "Beetle Bailey," and "Prince Valiant" Sunday strips.

But with a catastrophic consistency rivaling the Biblical tale of Job, the museum came up empty-handed. Simultaneous auctions were held by Manhattan-based Guernsey's and Leftbid.com on May 19, but the sale was plagued with confusion over who was bidding on what, lousy online connections, and low bids. When the e-smoke cleared, the highest authenticated bid was $700,000; the minimum bid required for sale of the "Plane Crazy" art was $800,000.

With expectations dropping, a second auction, scheduled for June 8, set a minimum bid of $650,000. The highest bid received was $525,000.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson

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