Jack Kirby and The Art Of Theft

For years I've been covering the very sensitive and thorny issue of the theft of Jack Kirby's artwork on my blog. I say sensitive and thorny because when the issue is brought up, quite a few collectors and dealers will do their best to shut it down. 

Because bringing this to light also brings to light both the underground and overground selling, trading and dealing in stolen art that has been going on for decades now. And the people who've engaged in these practices don't like being exposed.
It's not just Jack Kirby who has suffered from this. From Joe Simon to Brian Bolland, from Steve Bissette to Neal Adams, from Bernie Wrightson to Alan Kupperberg, from Frank Miller to Ross Andru - almost any artist, especially those working in the American comic book industry, have suffered from seeing their art stolen from companies they worked for and then seeing it openly on sale. At times when those artists have approached the dealers or the persons selling, they're shut down, sometimes with legal threats being issued to silence them.
If you can do that to Jack Kirby and Neal Adams, then you can do that to anyone. Joe Simon engaged the FBI to deal with his stolen art and eventually had to cut a deal with the dealer who bought the stolen art in order to get some of it back. The exact details of the deal has never been released as it was subject to a NDA.
Joe Simon. The man who co-created Captain America. Who had his art stolen from his house. Who engaged the FBI and STILL couldn't get it back because the dealer felt he'd done nothing wrong and dug in and issued his own legal threats to Simon. People now own that art and proudly display it, either ignorant to it's origins or knowing full well and not caring.
Two of the most notorious thefts of original art happened in different decades and affected the two biggest and well known artists of the field - Neal Adams and Jack Kirby. I'll get into the Neal Adams theft in a later post, for now I want to crunch some numbers on the Jack Kirby Marvel Art Theft.
Entire issues of original art were stolen from Marvel back in the early ‘80s, and soon they were being dealt on the collectors market. These included complete issues of early Marvel Comics, drawn by Steve Ditko, Don Heck and Jack Kirby. Kirby began to attend conventions and it must have caused Kirby a considerable amount of pain to see art which he’d been denied both by the bullishness of Marvel and by criminals, being openly sold and traded at the shows, and, even worse, people would buy the stolen art and bring it to Kirby to sign and admire. Worn down, Kirby would eventually resign himself to never getting the art back and would just sign his name and let it go. Clearly, there are still those out there who know exactly who stole what and who bought it. 
This art was stolen directly from the Marvel offices. Now there are stories that are well known in these circles. The artist who stole John Buscema and John Romita art to pay for his divorces. The artist who stole art to pay off their house and set themselves up for life. The editor who used to ask for corrections to be done on vellum so he could keep the original art boards. The writer who, after Steve Ditko's death, proudly boasted on Facebook about conning Ditko into handing over original art because, as he falsely claimed, the company they worked for had a policy that meant the writer got a portion of the art. The writer who used to constantly ask his artists for art, but only key or splash pages. The colourist who used to steal entire issues. The artist who, when given pencils by famous artists, would ink them on vellum and submit those for publication and keep the pencils. 
The list is endless really. All the names are those connected with the industry and held in the highest regard.
As for who stole the Kirby art from Marvel, the rumours all name different people. I'm not going to name who I've been told, suffice to say I don't believe one big name, I do believe others. As it stands more than one person stole the art.
Marvel began to return original art to its artists in 1974. To this end they engaged the services of staffer Irene Vartanoff to catalogue the art in it's possession. Some of the art had already been returned - Jim Steranko got his back at the time simply by insisting upon it. Releases were prepared, and signed, and art began to filter back to inkers and pencilers. But not Jack Kirby.
When Kirby returned to Marvel in the 1970s, his art from that point on was returned from that date, in line with current conditions. But his Marvel art from the 1960s and earlier was held back. The contract Kirby was asked to sign ran into four pages, other artists had one page releases. Kirby refused to sign, long story short, a deal was cut, a new contract issued and Kirbys art was released.
It should have been simple. At some point in the early 1980s, Marvel Editor-In-Chief, Jim Shooter, became aware of art being stolen from a warehouse Marvel rented. In order to stop this, he had the art brought directly into the Marvel offices, where, it was presumed, it'd be safe.
The pallets containing the art was stored next to a freight elevator. It was being lifted the minute it arrived. How much of that art was Jack Kirbys? Let's have a quick look.
In the mid-1970s, Vartanoff produced a list of what art of Jack Kirby's was still in Marvel's possession. The list came up with art spread over 274 issues (with an additional 4 issues containing modern covers not yet returned), which covered 34 covers and 3,915 interior pages. However, a quick look at how many pages Kirby drew for those 274 issues comes to 4,537. 
This means 622 pages were missing already. Gone. Presumably not in Jack Kirby's possession. Maybe returned to the inkers? 
Maybe not.
Mike Esposito once told me a story about how he was given a complete Jack Kirby Fantastic Four issue, cover and all, and asked to sell it a convention in the early 1970s. Mike asked the person giving him the art where did he get it from, and was told that Kirby didn't care, and that Kirby had told the person to sell it if he wanted to. So Mike sold it. All 20 pages, plus cover, for $250, which was a mighty sum in those days. As Mike told me, thirty years later, he shouldn't have done it, but he didn't think the art was stolen, given the source. He knew, thirty years after the event, that the person handing him the art, had stolen it from Marvel. Hindsight is a horrid thing at times.
So not all the art was given back. And this is only covering those 274 issues, which is a fraction of what Kirby produced for Marvel.
In 1984-85, a list was prepared of all the Jack Kirby artwork in Marvel's possession that remained. That list detailed 2,057 interior pages. Between the time Vartanoff completed her inventory, and the 1985 inventory, with the art 'safely' at Marvel's offices, 1,892 pages went missing. This was the art returned to Jack Kirby.
That means, out of the 4,537 pages that Kirby drew over those 274 issues, 2,480 went missing. Some of those pages were handed back to inkers, but the bulk was stolen.
How do we know it was stolen? Simple. Let's look at the raw data for this.
Fifty entire  issues of titles such as Captain America and Fantastic Four were listed in Vartanoff inventory and were missing from the 1985 inventory.
These titles, and issues, are as follows:

Table One: The difference between Kirby's credited pages, the pages in Vartanoff
inventory and the pages returned to Kirby as per 1985 inventory. That accounts for 1,000 pages  that Kirby drew that went missing. 227 went missing before Vartanoff did her inventory and an additional 773 pages went missing from the Vartanoff inventory to the 1985 inventory. As entire issues went missing, it can be presumed that it was stolen and not merely returned to the inkers.
If you have art from those issues, it's provenance is clouded.

Table Two. This table shows the breakdown, by title, of the book and pages of the Vartanoff inventory and the 1985 inventory. NOTE: Pages listed with a zero entry in Vartanoff
were covers.

Table Three. Same as above, only with the Kirby credited pages included. Again, blank and 0 values in the Kirby credited pages and the Vartanoff inventory denote cover art

Table Four. The Kirby covers in the Vartanoff inventory

Table Five. These covers were definitely NOT returned to Kirby as per the 1985 inventory
Where does this leave us?
A few years ago the original art for the entire issue of Thor #134 came up for auction. This art was most likely stolen art. This knowledge didn't stop the sale, and it won't stop the sale of those pages in the future.

Nice pages. But would you have them on the wall knowing that they were stolen from Marvel back in the day and that Kirby never saw them again after submitting them? If the answer is yes, well, I can't help you.
More on this topic to come.


Terranova47 said…
My memory says that it was Marvel policy not to return artwork to artists as it was Marvel property. In the 1970's it was British artist Barry Smith of the Conan title that pressed to have his original art returned which included a lawsuit against Marvel.

Up until that point Jack Kirby and other artists would have accepted that if you wanted to be paid to draw comics you accepted that the company owned your work.

By the time of comic conventions beginning in the 70's artists like Kirby would produce their own posters to sell, including signing them for fans. By then they knew of Smith's protest.

Bill Gaines, founder and editor of MAD Magazine retained all original artwork so Marvel was not alone in that policy.
Manqueman said…
Great piece, Daniel, like always.
Kid said…
Back then, most artists (and Marie Severin bears this out) weren't interested in getting their art returned as they had nowhere to store it and, at that point, they didn't see it as having any value. It was only when it started making money in the collectors' market that they decided "Hey, I want a piece of that - after all, I drew it!" However, up until then, like Terranova says, artists accepted that it was the publishers who owned the art.
Anonymous said…
Good stuff Daniel. As to the prior posters comments -

As someone who was in the industry and had many a lunch and drinks with the old timers, it is very clear that many of them would have like to have the artwork back, but they knew that they weren't going to get it, and didn't want to rock the boat. When someone with moxy demanded the pages, like Steranko, they got them, but a "B" level artist was not going to get the same treatment from management. To think that they would perhaps lose assignments was not worth the asking. But many of them did want pages back.

As far as owning the art, that makes it an even stickier issue now, with Kirby dead. I eventually purchased a page from FF #20 via comic link auction, which came with no provenance (I asked), and a fake Kirby signature on it, so it "appeared" to come from the Kirby estate. It did not. I still have the page.

I had artwork stolen from me. And I was never a huge name or anything like that, but I still had artwork stolen, and when I have seen someone who has those pages I do the same thing - shrug and move on. There is no mechanism for getting those materials back. And who knows how many hands it went through before I saw it for sale.
Anonymous said…
As ever, a provocative, fascinating article with much to chew on. Minor point: Kirby didn't draw the Silver Surfer 18 cover. It's either all Trimpe or Severin/Trimpe.
Rick Parker said…
I think it’s a bit odd that I worked in the Marvel Bullpen from 1977 until 1985. I came into the office to work every day. I often stayed in the office until 10 o’clock or so doing freelance work. I came into contact with all the editors, the staff, freelancers, and others and I never heard anyone talking about any art being stolen. Out of the hallway or anywhere else. You would think maybe that subject would have come up at least once in all that time. But to the best of my knowledge though it never did. I did hear that people didn’t value the artwork much or that some of it was given away to visitors or just plain lost. In those days you could just walk in off the street walk into the office day or night. After 5 you could not get into the building without passing the front desk and having your name recorded. In short if there were thieves stealing artwork it would be super easy. And I think I would have heard about it. We talked about a lot of things. Mostly we talked about creating comics. But I don’t remember ANY of my coworkers ever expressing a word about art thefts.
Wm Byron said…
I respect (and am a fan of) Rick Parker but the other people who spoke out about the thefts shouldn't be discounted. I would literally fight a man who spoke against Alan Kupperberg (just for example), and other people who did name a prominent artist (who was a close personal friend of Gary Groth) several times and with several specific instances- shouldn't be discounted. There's too many voices who spoke out- for the record- about art being stolen, and even Kirby being disparaged in letter pages when he returned to Marvel. Some of these marginal figures still disparage Kirby on their blogs to this day. The theft of this art is disgusting and I don't understand why it's not a bigger deal.
Manqueman said…
Re Byron's claim regarding Rick Parker:
There's been stuff in the air about "a prominent artist" who regularly left the office with let's say someone else's art in his case. Not for me to name. However, if I recollect, that artist was let's say moving on from Marvel as Parker was starting, so Byron can be correct without Parker being wrong. The thief has been identified in at least one roman a clef, maybe two.
Personally, I find the thievery indefensible but I also find the s*** money paid to creators indefensible but I no way does one cancel the other.
Anonymous said…
I'd like to follow up that Len Wein and Marv Wolfman were at a convention in 1969 or 1970 and sold original Marvel art from a hotel room. They did a panel with Roy Thomas that same convention, who I believe to be the source of original art based on comments the Rascally One had made in interviews about the writer being entitled to original art. These fans-turned-pros could be really terrible and they were.

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