A quite unusual gallery opened a year ago in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. At the end of West 24th Street, almost opposite Gagosian, the nerve center of New York’s contemporary art market, the Philippe Labaune Gallery has chosen to represent an immensely successful sector in Europe, but which has remained almost untapped in the United States: comic art.
After a 25-year career in finance in New York City, and almost the same amount of time collecting strips and illustrations from his favorite artists, the young-spirited fifty-something from Valence, in the Drôme département, decided to shift markets and transform his passion into a business. “I have always loved comics; I lost my father and my brother when I was a child, and comics offered a refuge during my teenage years,” he says in the backroom of his gallery, whose walls offer a miniature museum of his favorite artists, including Bilal, Mœbius, Liberatore, Charles Burns, and Georges Bess.
Philippe Labaune discovered New York as a student on an exchange program between his university in Lyon and Pace University. “I was supposed to spend eight months here; I went straight into an MBA, which I funded by working as a teaching assistant, and I never left!” But it was in Paris in the early 2000s that he started his collection, thanks to one of the first comic-art gallerists, Daniel Maghen. “With my first bonus, I bought a small drawing by Mœbius; I must have paid 80 euros for it, and it’s still in my office. The gallery was very small and the illustrations were pinned to the wall, but when I realized that I could purchase an original plate, I thought it was incredible.”
A Booming Market
Over the following two decades, the Stralem & Company wealth management firm, at which Philippe Labaune was a partner, went from strength to strength. And so did his collection. Today, it features almost 150 original plates and drawings, “including around fifty exceptional pieces. But I have nothing by Hergé… My generation was obsessed with Métal hurlant [published in the United States as Heavy Metal], L’Echo des savanes, and Fluide glacial,” magazines that introduced Francophone comics to a more adult readership than those of Spirou and Tintin.
As a regular at the Angoulême International Comics Festival (“As I used to go every year, I started getting to know people. They called me the American!”), galleries, and auctions, Philippe Labaune is well-placed to observe the rise of the comic-art market. “The sale of illustrations by Enki Bilal by Artcurial in 2007 was a turning point. The first plate was valued at 30,000 euros and went for twice that. Then the other prices rose throughout the auction.” That day saw the world record for the sale of comic art beaten, with one work sold for 177,000 euros. And the figures have been climbing ever since. In January 2021, a drawing by Hergé for the cover of his volume The Blue Lotus was sold for 3.2 million euros.
Over the same period, comic-art galleries sprang up all over Europe. “There’s half a dozen in Paris, two in Brussels, two in Italy, and one or two in Spain,” says Philippe Labaune. But the United States is still relatively new to the sector. There are American comic-art collectors, “but they are more interested in rare prints and comic-book plates than large illustrations, and most of the sales are made online – which isn’t really my thing…”
Tintin and Covid-19
In 2019, Philippe Labaune took the plunge and sold his stake in Stralem & Company. In order to test the market, he organized a first New York exhibition at the Danese/Corey gallery in early 2020. Line and Frame: A Survey of European Comic Art offered an overview of seven decades of comic art through the work of 51 artists, from Tintin and Alix to more contemporary illustrators such as Manu Larcenet and Pénélope Bagieu. “I brought in a large painting by Enki Bilal and, for the first time in the United States, two plates by Hergé.”
The show was a hit with the public, but it ended on March 14, 2020, at the same time as the American borders closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “We had a few hours to pack everything up, and the Tintin plates were held at the airport for six months.” Even worse, the sales agreements were cancelled one after another. Yet in a twist of fate, one of George Lucas’s representatives contacted him a few days later to purchase half of the works on show. They will become part of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, set to open next year in Los Angeles.
Another consequence of the public health crisis is that Philippe Labaune has finally found a gallery to rent in Chelsea. “Before the pandemic, owners didn’t want to rent their spaces for comic-art exhibitions. But a lot of galleries have since closed, and I was even able to negotiate on the price.” Since the first show opening on April 8, 2021, the 1,600 square feet of the Philippe Labaune Gallery have hosted an homage to Japanese illustrator Katsuhiro Otomo, renowned for the Akira manga series, and individual shows focused on European artists Georges Bess, Liberatore, and Lorenzo Mattotti. According to the gallerist, buyers are also returning to the scene. “I’ve been lucky enough to do this after a long career in finance, but the gallery has to be profitable. So we operate rather frugally, while trying to offer interesting pieces.”
In April, Philippe Labaune showcased women illustrators in an exhibition called 3 Continents, featuring Rutu Modan (Israeli), Elizabeth Colomba (French-Martinican, based in New York), and Catherine Meurisse (French), who survived the attack on Charlie Hebdo. This will be followed by a show on French illustrator Nicolas de Crécy, through June 18, and another in the fall on Belgian artist François Schuiten, who has just illustrated a Travel Book about planet Mars for Louis Vuitton. Meanwhile, Philippe Labaune dreams of opening a second gallery in Florida. “My goal is to show that comics are an important art form, and that something magical happens when illustrators are given the chance to create large works. Comic artists are incredibly skilled draftsmen, which have become increasingly rare in the art world.”