IT began 17 years ago when Jack Solomon decided to slip a few animation "cels" among the fine art hanging in one of his galleries. Today, six of the 43 Circle Galleries are dedicated to the likes - and likenesses - of Betty Boop, Bugs Bunny, and Batman.
Circle Fine Art Corporation, whose stock has struggled on the NASDAQ exchange during a recession that has struck the fine-arts community especially hard, has been looking forward to this holiday season.
Mr. Solomon says he expects his cels - the art from which animation film is shot - to carry most of the company's hoped-for profitability.
"It's been the worst art market since World War II," he says. "But during the last four or five years, animation art has really exploded."
"Many art galleries put people off," Solomon says. "But when people come in here they smile. They see all the people they grew up with."
Solomon estimates that his animation studios in Chicago and Northbrook, Ill.; Anaheim, Calif.; Kansas City, Mo.; St. Louis, and New York City - about 13 percent of all Circle Galleries - account for $7 million in annual revenues, almost a quarter of Circle's total.
Compared with fine art, animation art is still a bargain. The average cel sells for` $400 to $700, Solomon says, compared with a painting or sculpture that typically costs $2,000 to $8,000.
"On the other hand, somebody springing for $500 is paying a lot more than the average sale of most retailers," Solomon admits. "But here you can get a very attractive piece of art signed by a legend."
"Legends" adorn the walls of the Circle Gallery of Animation & Cartoon Art on Chicago's trendy North Michigan Avenue. Among them are Grim Natwick, the Betty Boop creator who later pioneered feature animation by developing "Snow White" for the studios of a young man named Walt Disney; Fritz Freleng and Chuck Jones, who took Warner Brothers animation to impressive business and artistic heights during the 1950s and `60s; Bill Melendez of "Charlie Brown" fame, and recent animation lions like Jim Davis ("Garf ield") and Matt Groening ("The Simpsons").
"This is serious art," Solomon says. "We always held that position even when everybody else said we were nuts. And this is an art form that Americans excel at. Disney is the Rembrandt of the medium. The Picassos are Freleng and Jones, and the Matisses are Hanna and Barbera."
Animation art has evolved from something that looks cute on children's walls to a serious art investment, according to Leah Murawsky, director of the company's Chicago gallery.
Animation cels range from $400 to $3,700 framed. One reason they are so expensive: "Warner Brothers, for instance, burned almost all their cels in the late `50s," Ms. Murawsky says.
Two forms of cels are offered:
* Hand-painted original production cels from which the animation film was shot, frame by frame.
* Hand-painted limited editions created where the originals no longer exist.
Many of the cels adorning the gallery's walls are original. They are lithographs signed by the animators or verified by studios like Disney, who did not give credit to individual animators.
Animation art lovers looking for a relative bargain do have an alternative to the two types of cels. "Sericels," unsigned silkscreen reproductions of production cels, go for $150 or $175 framed.
Ms. Murawsky cautions: "We don't advise people to collect animation art simply as an investment, though. We want people to buy it because they like it and want it on their walls....It's a reminder of the past and of the innocence and laughter that went with it."