Last year, a drawing of young cartoon reporter Tintin carving a propeller from a tree trunk sold for $1.1m (£850,250) with Dallas-based Heritage Auctions. It was special because it was the original artwork used for the first published magazine cover to feature Tintin in February 1930.
It was a fitting illustration because the market in artwork by Tintin’s Belgian creator, Georges Rémi, known as Hergé, has truly taken off in recent years. The current price record was set in 2014, when a signed page of drawings from 1937 fetched €2.6m (£2.35m) with Artcurial. The Parisian auction house boasts that eight out of the ten most expensive works by Hergé at auction have gone under its hammer.
Tintin’s faux pas
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On 21 November, that number looks set to become nine when the initial artwork for Le Lotus Bleu goes up for sale. The Blue Lotus, as it’s called in English, was published in 1936. It is the fifth album in the series, and sees Tintin travel to China to disrupt the opium trade. He is assisted in his mission by the trusty Chang, and there is a good reason for his appearance. The previous four albums had tended to draw on “clichés and crude stereotypes”, as the official Tintin website puts it.
Initial artwork for The Blue Lotus © Artcurial
Indeed, the notorious second album, Tintin in the Congo (1931), came under renewed scrutiny during the 60th anniversary of Congolese independence from Belgium this summer. The Blue Lotus marked a turning point (although, as Sam Leith notes in The Daily Telegraph, some might still take issue with the depiction of the “toothy, sadistic, harakiri-prone Japanese”). Hergé did his research on Chinese culture and the work expresses the evolution of Hergé’s thinking. The Blue Lotus is indeed considered to be one of the better Tintin adventures.
The initial artwork Hergé produced for it was, however, never used. The Indian ink, gouache and watercolour on paper image of Tintin and Milou (Snowy) peeking out from a Ming vase, while seemingly being menaced by a Chinese dragon (look closer and you will see it’s actually the wallpaper), was deemed too costly to reproduce with the four-colour technique used in 1936. The publisher, Louis Casterman, turned it down. According to the auction house, Hergé gave it to the publisher’s young son, who kept it in a drawer.
“This artwork is a genuine masterpiece encapsulating Hergé’s genius and is probably the most beautiful Tintin album cover ever,” says Eric Leroy, comic-strip expert at Artcurial, which has valued the artwork at up to €3m (£2.7m) for the sale next month.
Tintin creator Hergé © Getty Images
A disputed history
It will be the first time Hergé’s initial artwork for The Blue Lotus goes up for auction. The piece was inspired by a picture of Anna May Wong, the Chinese-American actress who appeared with Marlene Dietrich in the 1932 film Shanghai Express, says Bruno Waterfield in The Times.
After it was rejected for being too expensive to reproduce, Hergé gave it to Jean-Paul Casterman, the publisher’s young son. The boy tucked it away for safe-keeping. That’s the official version of events. “Hergé’s old friends say this account is as fanciful as any Tintin tale: they are aghast that the picture is up for auction, and say it was pinched from the author,” says Leo Cendrowicz on i news.
“I met Jean-Paul in 1990 and he told me that it was a present from Hergé, who didn’t think the rejected picture had any value,” Artcurial’s Leroy tells Cendrowicz. (Hergé died in 1983, and the younger Casterman in 2009. The present sellers are the latter’s children.) “Tintinologists… say it is inconceivable that Hergé… would have given it to a boy he’d never met,” says Cendrowicz.
Hergé always signed his gifts, they point out, and the timing of the sale comes “just months after the deadline lapsed for any legal challenge to the picture’s ownership”. One theory is that Hergé sent the image to the publisher and it was simply never sent back. Either way, the sale is going ahead and it is expected to set a new auction record for a European comic-strip drawing next month.
This article was originally published in MoneyWeek
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