Disney collectibles are soaring—and a small gallery in Sherman Oaks is at the peak of the mountain.
Written byMichalene Busico
Photographed byShane O’Donnell
The architect’s model for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. A snazzy, green Autopia car, original paint and scuffs intact. The heartbreaking “minimum height” sign from the Matterhorn Bobsleds.
All of these Disneyland artifacts and hundreds more—most dating to the early years of the Anaheim theme park—were awaiting auction in December, displayed behind a nondescript storefront on Ventura Boulevard. As Disney fanatics around the world know, Van Eaton Galleries in Sherman Oaks is one of the leading dealers in Mouse collectibles. And some of the gallery’s biggest projected sales yet—including the collections of legendary “imagineer” Rolly Crump and noted collector Richard Kraft—are scheduled for later this year. If you’ve ever dreamed of owning a god from the Enchanted Tiki Room or the hand-crafted model of It’s a Small World that convinced Walt Disney to build the ride or an actual Mike Fink Keel Boat, this is your year.
The mastermind behind all of these sales is Mike Van Eaton, a longtime animation art dealer who became a Disney auctioneer almost by accident, when a friend asked him to help unload an unusually large collection. There were over 900 lots in that Story of Disneyland sale in 2015, a two-day affair that brought in more than $1.7 million and put Van Eaton in the Disney memorabilia business. Since then, his Disney auctions—each with its own theme—have seen record-breaking sales, such as the 1953 Disneyland presentation map, which Roy Disney used to drum up investors to build the park. It fetched $708,000 last year, the highest price ever paid for a Disney map at auction.
“Originally, they were going to build the park here in the Valley,” says Van Eaton, who is also an eager Disney collector and geek. “They were going to build it on a little piece of land near the studio in Burbank. Then the plans got bigger and bigger and they needed more land. That’s why they went to Orange County.
“You can still get things for $25 or $30 that are quite worthwhile, and that makes the market very exciting and fresh.”
“But if you think of the thousands of people employed at the studio, all the guys who inked and painted the cells, there is a big association here in the Valley with Disneyland. It’s a big reason why we have a store on Ventura Boulevard, so people can find us—the families of people who worked on all those movies—and bring us stuff to auction or sell.”
There is plenty of profit to tempt them. Van Eaton estimates that prices for Disney collectibles have tripled over the past two or three years and are still on the rise.
Case in point: those portraits that “stretch” in the beginning of the Haunted Mansion ride. Van Eaton bought one years ago for $4,000. “Of course, I had no place to put it, so I stored it rolled up in a closet,” he says. He eventually sold it for $40,000, only to see a similar stretch painting sell for $150,000 a few years after that. But he points out, “You can still get things for $25 or $30 that are quite worthwhile, and that makes the market very exciting and fresh.”
At the December sale, that Matterhorn Bobsleds safety sign was a surprise hit. Estimated at $800 to $1,000, it fetched $18,000. An attraction poster for the long-gone Rainbow Caverns—like all attraction posters, done in a style that suggests actual travel to a fantasy destination—sold for $14,000. Even a newer bygone attraction—the Tower of Terror—brought in $11,000 for a room-key cabinet, more than triple its highest estimate.
No matter what the object, Van Eaton says these are emotional purchases. “You don’t buy this stuff because of artwork,” he explains, “but because the character, the ride or the movie affected you. It’s all about memories. It’s funny, but December is one of our slowest months because this is stuff you buy for yourself, not for a gift.”
It makes sense then, that almost all of the bidders are from the United States, with more than half from California. And that lately, there has been an uptick in demand for anything connected with the 1980s (like the Little Mermaid) as that generation hits their 40s and becomes nostalgic for a piece of their childhood.
For Van Eaton, the personal touchstones are the Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion, which he remembers riding when they first opened in the late 1960s.
“I was blown away then and they still hold up,” he says. “It’s thrilling to own that stuff. Even if it’s rolled up in a closet.”
3 To Watch
For Mike Van Eaton, every Disney auction is a story unto itself—a kind of themed ride into the past. For the three major sales at Van Eaton Galleries this year, the objects will be displayed during previews open to the public. Check out vegalleries.com for dates.
Spring: Estate of Rolly Crump
The legendary Disney “imagineer” designed the It’s a Small World ride, the moving characters in the Tiki Room and got the Haunted Mansion off the ground with something called Museum of the Weird. Crump, who is now 87 and lives in Oceanside, is selling most of his memorabilia, including his prized possession: a model of the Small World facade that he showed to Walt Disney to get approval for the ride. “It’s going to sell for around $100,000,” Van Eaton says.
Early Summer: Private Collection of Richard Kraft
This enormous collection—“the most extensive we’ve ever seen,” Van Eaton says—was the subject of a 2006 documentary, Finding Kraftland. Kraft, an LA film music agent, acquired a vehicle from almost every ride in the park—Matterhorn bobsleds, Peter Pan floating ships, Haunted Mansion buggies, Model T’s from Main Street, the People Mover, even a river- boat—plus artwork and other collectibles. Van Eaton is currently looking for a venue large enough to hold it all. “My favorite item is a 40-foot sea serpent that used to be underwater in the Submarine Voyage,” he says. “The head moves, the eyes go around, too.”
Late Summer: History of the Disney Studio
The sale, sourced from several collectors, spans the dawn of the studio in 1922 to the present day and includes cartoon artwork, toys from the ’20s, Kem Weber’s sleek furniture for the original studio, movie props and more. It will kick off with a piece from Van Eaton’s personal collection: a 1922 stock certificate for Laugh-O-Gram Films, a forerunner to the Disney studio, that Walt Disney started in Kansas City. “I love that piece, but it fits this auction so well,” Van Eaton says. “And it’s sitting in my drawer. Better that it’s on someone’s wall.”
An expert weighs in.