What you see: Death Dealer 6, an original painting done in 1990 by the late Frank Frazetta. Heritage Auctions sold it in May 2018 for $1.7 million, an auction record for the artist, and for any piece of comic art. (Also, scroll all the way down for a link to a Frazetta painting in an August 2 to August 4, 2018 auction at Heritage that could command $600,000 or more.)
The expert: Joe Mannarino, director of comics and comic art for Heritage Auctions. Mannarino and his wife, Nadia, were longtime personal friends of Frazetta’s, who died in 2010 at the age of 82.
So, for those who don’t know, can you give an introduction to the work of the Frank Frazetta, and explain why he’s such a big deal? He came to fame because he was originally an illustrator of popular culture. He grew up as a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan series, and he happened to get in a situation where he helped an artist who was doing the illustrated covers for reprints of Burroughs’s work in the early 1960s. One out of every three paperbacks sold [then] was an Edgar Rice Burroughs paperback, and many people bought them because of their covers. Later, Frazetta did the cover illustrations for Conan the Barbarian, and he revitalized the entire franchise. Then he was in demand, doing paperback covers, magazine covers, movie posters. Warren Publishing, a magazine publisher, said to him, “You come up with any image you want, and we’ll get a writer to write a story around it.” I can’t tell you how many people from so many different walks of life grew up with a Frank Frazetta poster on their walls. They spark the imagination. Every picture tells a story.
What do collectors look for in a Frazetta? Frank is known for the Four Bs. The first is beautiful babes–he has an eye for the beautiful. There are people who love his barbarians. There are people who love Burroughs and the sci-fi fantasy realm. And there are people who love the way Frank does beasts.
How did Frazetta hit upon the idea of the Death Dealer character? In the 1960s, he decided for himself–it wasn’t an assignment–to do a depiction of what he felt Death would look like. No sooner does Frank do it than people think of ways to use the image. It was on the cover of a magazine, and on the cover of a record album. Frank was always surprised by this. The last thing he thought would be licensed was Death Dealer. It’s a feeling, it’s a mood.
How many Death Dealer images did he paint? He was always looking for licensing deals. He was asked if he could do more images with the same character. He did six, five of which were published as paperback covers [of Death Dealer novels]. The last one, number six, never came out. It was cancelled after five issues.
How does Death Dealer 6 compare to the other five? The first Death Dealer is very intense. It’s motionless. It has great gravitas. You feel the intensity there. The others depicted scenes in a novel. He is a character almost like a barbarian. Death Dealer 6 captures a lot of what Frank is known for. He hated art that was stiff. Look at the horse, and look at the guy’s arm. Nothing there looks overworked or stiff. It has tremendous visual appeal. That’s what his art is about.
And Death Dealer 6 is the only Death Dealer painting to go to auction? Yes. The family has the other five.
How often do Frazetta paintings come to auction? He was fanatical about keeping his original art. He felt his art was going to be more valuable. He kept 80 to 90 percent of what he produced. None of the [other] Death Dealers have been sold. His key paintings were always in his museum. Then he passed away. His wishes were that his museum continue, but his kids had other ideas.
So his paintings started to come to market after he died? He would agree to sell things sporadically [while he was alive]. The first time he sold a lot of material, it was the mid 1990s. He sold eight or nine paintings.
How prolific was Frazetta? He wasn’t. That’s a misconception. He worked in any medium that you can imagine, but he considered himself to have 150 finished oil paintings, with maybe another 25 unfinished. Maybe he sold 30 prior to his death. He sold very infrequently.
What drove Death Dealer 6 to such a high price at auction? How much of that was because it was a Death Dealer image? A Death Dealer painting had never come on the market before, and Death Dealer is an original character created by Frank Frazetta [unlike Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian]. That was most of it. And the market has been escalating. With each painting we put up, we get more and more, and as comparables are rising, people are comfortable going up to the next stage. But if he had ever agreed to sell Death Dealer 1 in the 1990s, I could have gotten $1 million for it then. Frank just refused to sell his paintings. The only thing that ever held back the Frazetta market before was because nothing great came up for sale. If it had, the market would have gone up much quicker. But he wanted to keep them.
When did you know you had a new world auction record for a Frank Frazetta work? When it passed $1.1 million. It was very exciting, on many levels. First of all, you know you’re helping a consigner, and you see them get a lot of money–that means a lot to them. And knowing the artist, and knowing what it would have meant to him [to see a work of his cross the seven-figure threshold], means even more.
How long do you think this record will stand? What else could challenge it? If any of his more iconic paintings come to market, the market will be pushed, that’s for sure. We have yet to see some of the greatest Frazetta paintings come up for sale. I don’t know what will happen if they do.
What’s the likelihood that another painting from the Death Dealer series will come up? Impossible to say. It depends on the family’s needs and wishes going forward.
In its Comics & Comic Art Signature Auction, taking place from August 2 to August 4, 2018, Heritage is offering Escape on Venus, a 1972 Frazetta painting for the cover of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. It could command $600,000 or more.
The Frank Frazetta Museum has a website. The original Death Dealer image is its logo.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
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