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.



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