In the office of his eponymous gallery in Chelsea, Philippe Labaune is drinking coffee in a mug printed with a scene from the Tintin volume Destination Moon. He is delighted. The exhibition that he put on to showcase French-American illustrator Miles Hyman opened on May 13, and many of the charcoal pages and oil paintings have already been sold. “The comic art market is where street art was fifteen years ago,” he says. “People once refused to purchase work by some guy who did graffiti. Now they’re falling over each other to buy artists like Banksy.”
Yet Philippe Labaune almost threw in the towel. In February 2020, he was organizing a gallery exhibition on European comics in New York – the first of its kind in the United States. The event went “relatively well,” but the pandemic made his customers wary. The stock market was sluggish, a third of the sales were cancelled, and one customer even asked for her money back. “I was feeling very low,” says the French collector, who was considering going back to the job in finance he had for 27 years in New York.
A single email was enough to give him hope. Via his buyer, a famous American director acquired a third of this exhibited collection. “It was the sign I needed to get back to my search!” Until then, not even one gallery had shown an interest in graphic novels, illustration, or comics – what the late U.S. cartoonist Will Eisner called “sequential art.” In Chelsea, several galleries hit hard by the pandemic have now closed. “The fact that I sell comics was no longer a problem for realtors, and I found this space on West 24th Street.”
Flea Market Atmosphere
There are no fewer than eight galleries specialized in comic art in Paris, while there was just one twenty years ago. In the United States, Philippe Labaune is the first. For now, the majority of sales take place online and at fairs. “But often, the items sold online have damaged pages, poor descriptions, or yellowed paper. And those are just the authentic pieces! At comic book conventions, sellers are squeezed into their booth with 800 pages spread out in front of them. Comics still have something of a flea market image in America, which is exactly what I want to change.”
Philippe Labaune’s first move has been a series of carefully curated exhibitions, such as the homage to Japanese manga artist Katsuhiro Otomo held last April to inaugurate the gallery. Following on from Miles Hyman the spotlight will then be turned onto French illustrators Georges Bess and Nicolas de Crécy. The gallery owner is also considering a retrospective of the Métal Hurlant and Heavy Metal magazines, as well as an exhibition focused on four women from four different continents.
“The gallery is giving credibility to the artists and their work. People are buying them online for up to 30,000 dollars, but very few are willing to go higher,” he says. “At my space, fans don’t have to queue for hours like at Comic Con to meet their favorite illustrators!” His first exhibition was attended by dandies from Chelsea, art buffs, and teenagers more accustomed to comics fairs wearing button-covered T-shirts, hoping to get an autograph.
Another characteristic of the comic art market is the fact that the medium is more affordable than contemporary art. Collectors can expect to pay around 3,000 dollars for an original page from Miles Hyman’s The Black Dahlia, between 5,000 and 15,000 dollars for a drawing by Mœbius, and between 70,000 and 80,000 dollars for a page from The Smurfs. The auction of a cover project for Tintin’s The Blue Lotus in Paris last January heralded a new record in the comics market at 3.175 million euros including fees. However, Philippe Labaune warns that “Hergé should be seen as the Leonardo da Vinci of the comic book world; there’s him, and then there’s everyone else.”
The gallery owner follows trends in the same way he did as an investment advisor. He keeps a constantly updated Excel spreadsheet featuring around a hundred names, with 50% European artists, 40% Americans, and 10% Japanese. “That’s my financial side. I follow all the major auctions, and I note the listing price and the sale price for every page, canvas, and rare illustration. It helps me identify trends and spot up-and-coming artists.”
The French and Belgian artists Mœbius, Albert Uderzo, Jean-Claude Mézières, Enki Bilal, Jean-Claude Götting, and Philippe Geluck dominate the market, along with the Americans Paul Pope, Ian Bertram, Tradd Moore, and Frank Miller, the author of Sin City. The American comic book sector is lagging behind Europe, but there are positive signs of progress, including Robert Crumb’s drawings featured in the collections of prestigious museums and the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition showcasing U.S. illustrators in June.
According to Philippe Labaune, the U.S. market will have reached maturity when it hosts a sale as successful as the Enki Bilal auction in Paris in 2007. That year, the sale of 32 original works blew away all expectations to culminate in a record-breaking 1.3 million euros, four times the estimated value. “That was the sale the changed everything for the comics market.”
Miles Hyman: Narrative Images
From May 13 through June 26, 2021
Philippe Labaune Gallery