Original Art Stories: Jack Kirby's Original Art - Who Profits?

It’s a rare thing when a complete, fully intact, Silver Age Marvel story surfaces on the market, other than short stories, even rarer when that story was drawn by Jack Kirby and features a major character – in this case, Thor.  Up for auction at the moment is the complete original art for the main story in Thor #134, written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and drawn by Kirby and Vince Colletta, however the questions need to be asked – where did the story come from and what is it’s provenance?  But, no matter who asks, the answer isn’t going to be all that straightforward, but what can be ascertained is that Jack Kirby never received this artwork back from Marvel – in effect, unless it can be proven otherwise, the art could be considered stolen and as such it rightfully belongs to the Kirby estate – not that they’ll ever receive it, nor will they see any proceeds from it’s sale.

In 1986, The Comic Journal first reported the case of the missing Marvel art, as part of the then ongoing dispute between Jack Kirby and Marvel over the return of Kirby’s art.  Accompanying the article was a checklist showing what art was stored at Marvel, circa 1980 – Thor #134 does not feature on the list meaning that it had gone missing before the inventory had been conducted.  When Marvel finally did return Kirby’s art they also provided an inventory of what art was being returned, again, Thor #134 was not on that list either – this means that the art was not returned to Kirby, either in full or partially as Marvel only began sending art back to the artists in 1974, and the only art affected were those titles with a January 1974 cover date – art done before that time was still stored at Marvel, waiting to be inventoried.

Where did the art come from?  It may be that the art was in the possession of inker Vinnie Colletta, but it’s unlikely that Colletta would have received the entire story.  Even as early as the beginning of the 1970s, there were stories of entire Marvel comics being offered for sale at various conventions – indeed even DC Comics had been robbed with many pages of prime art by the likes of Neal Adams and Bernie Wrightson being stolen and offered for sale, an event that still rankles some of the artists today.  This practice of theft continues to this day - Steve Bissette regularly places a list of art that he states was stolen from DC as it was never returned to him, and asks that, if sighted, bought or sold, then he'd like to know and would appreciate it's return.  When it comes to stolen artwork in the 1960s and 1970s Marvel Comics was no exception.  Mike Esposito told me how he and Stan Goldberg offered the complete interior art to a Kirby Fantastic Four story for sale, he claimed to have no knowledge as to how the story came into their possession, and there are also stories of other artists at Marvel who would walk out with art, both their own and belonging to other artists.  And then there’s the legends that tell us how Stan Lee would routinely give away art to people he considered important at the time.  Either way, the art in question, Thor #134, might well be tainted.

In the fine art world, art is almost always offered with provenance.  If you’re going to be spending in excess of five, six or more figures, then the history of ownership should come as a given – the last thing a fine art collector or museum wants is to buy art only to have someone claim it at a later date.  In the comic art word provenance is almost a dirty word and, in some cases, with good reason.  Some, not all but some, art has very dubious ownership, with some art knowingly being stolen in the first place.  This art, regardless of it's origins, is openly traded and sold and many collectors are ambivalent to the history of the pieces, to the point of being openly hostile and contemptuous towards the artists who ask that their art be returned.  It's not a difficult concept to grasp - if it is proven that certain pieces of art are considered stolen then they should be returned, either to the artist or their family (in this case the Kirby estate) or to the company in question (in this case Marvel Comics), who, you’d presume would promptly return the art to the artists or their families.  With Marvel and the Kirby family, it would be expected that Marvel would promptly return the art to the Kirbys, no matter the status of their current dispute.   

However don’t expect to see either of these things happen – the art to Thor #134 will be bought, proudly displayed and the consigner will walk off with a nice, potentially six figure sum in their pocket.  Jack Kirby and Vinnie Collettas families will see nothing from the sale showing that, when it comes to Jack Kirby, it wasn’t just Marvel Comics who did him wrong.  Those who deal in stolen art are still doing him wrong.
The 1980 Inventory as published in The Comics Journal.  As can be seen, Thor #134 was missing back then.
The list of art returned to Jack Kirby by Marvel Comics in the mid to late 1980s and signed off by Kirby himself.  Again, Thor #134 is missing, which means it was never returned to Jack Kirby.
 And what is the provenance of the following story?  If you know, feel free to contact me or leave a comment.  If it can be proven that it was legitimately acquired from Jack Kirby, or his family, then I'm more than happy to post the details.



The rape of Jack Kirby never stops.

And I have been, at various times, the owner of various Silver Age Jack Kirby pages. It was owning those pages that convinced me that Kirby wasn't just illustrating the stories, but had created the characters and had plotted and written them, too. You could see his notations on every page telling the "writer" how to dialog and caption the work.

Sadly, I doubt many people will come to the defense of the creators who produced this work, nor argue on their behalf.
Mark Luebker said…
This would be a great opportunity for Kirby family attorney Marc Toberoff to do some actual good for the family: Contact the auction house, inform them of the status of these pages, and demand their immediate return.

If the current "owner" balks, then compel him or her to establish the work's provenance and clear ownership.

Should that individual be unable to do so--and it seems like then this becomes a criminal matter, either theft or receiving stolen property--then these pages should be returned to the last legal owner of record.

And if that's Marvel Comics, then they should fulfill their promise of returning Kirby's pages to him via his legal heirs.
Kid said…
Trouble is, most artists didn't even want their art returned back in the '60s - they had no use for it. It wasn't until the collectors' market in such pages had become established that artists started to demand their art back, on the grounds that, if anyone was going to profit from the pages, it should be them. Can't argue with that I suppose, but at the time, the art was regarded as the property of the company, who were free to dispose of it any way they wished. I therefore don't think it's reasonable for artists to expect the return of pages that they didn't want until after it had developed an 'after-the-fact' monetary value, and which were given away before the return policy came into effect.
Al said…
It sort of depends on how someone came into possession of the art, doesn't it? I guess it would be too much to expect someone along the line of buying/selling a piece of art to determine whether the artist or his heirs might have a claim on that art, wouldn't it? No, I don't think so. It's time for comics to grow up for a change.
Especially where there has been some past history of artwork being stolen. Now, an innocent buyer, without knowledge of the fact that many pages were stolen from Marvel, and without any knowledge of comics history, might be excused. But dealers and buyers who know the facts, that art might well have been stolen, should be held to a higher standard than just saying, "Well, I THOUGHT is was okay to buy/sell this, never gave much thought about it." I'd like to see a legal case made over sales of stolen art, although I'd realistically say that the chances of such a thing happening are remote.
Kid said…
There's no real way (in most cases) of determining how art was acquired 'though - especially as it's probably changed hands several times over the years. In the case of art produced before a 'returns' policy was adopted, I'd imagine it would be nigh-well impossible.

I once freelanced for a company who were destroying about 30 or 40 years worth of art in their files (after transferring what they considered the best of it onto microfiche). Legally, they owned the art, and it had never been their policy to return any art to artists. Nor did most artists even want it back as, at the time, there was no real market for it.

Several people 'rescued' some pages from destruction. I'd say it was theirs as the company didn't want it, and the artists didn't either (at the time). However, nowadays, some of it is probably quite valuable on the collectors' market, but I think any artist would have a bit of a cheek to expect or demand its return now, only because there was money to be made from it. Especially as they were indifferent to it when they first produced it, and didn't seek its return at the time.

However, I'd certainly agree that, in Marvel and DC's case, any art which went missing AFTER they had adopted a returns policy is the property of the artists.
Al said…
Agreed that the time to ask for the return of original art was at the time it was produced, and used in the finished product, the comic book. Although other considerations come into play. I don't think companies valued the artist all that much, so who knows what the reaction would have been at DC or Marvel if the artists, or any single artist, had asked for the art back? Their job might have been put in jeapardy by such a request, although the attempt should have been made. The artists might have preferred to have the art back, but weren't willing to risk any possibility that they'd get fired by making an issue of it. A pity.

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