The continuing story of the Wacky Packages original art: 1989-present
The modern era of the Wacky Pack original art starts with the 1989 Guernsey auction. At this auction 360 pieces were sold (out of roughly 570 that should exist somewhere). Each lot consisted of two pieces and went for an average of $500 per lot. Most of the pieces ended up in the hands of a very few people. The four main buyers were two art dealers Robert Foster (pop art collector/dealer), Robert Lifson (president of Robert Edward Auctions, in Watchung, N.J), a collector in the NY/NJ area who bought 36, and a collector from whose name I do not yet know (if you do please tell me) who bought about 70 and contacted John Mann in 2000 to sell some of them. It is not known exactly how many Foster and Lifson bought, but somewhere in the 200 range. A few other people picked up a few pieces each. So essentially 10 people account for most if not all of the pieces.
Very few of the approximately 200 pieces that were not sold in the Guernsey auction have turned up, about 20 at the time of this writing (June, 2002). Dan McKee, a wacky pack dealer in MD, found someone with seven non-Guernsey pieces (Fink, Moscow, Delinquent Spinach,
Heartburn, Hurts Tomatoes, Yubum, Mex-Pax). One person who worked for Topps also has a few non-Guernsey's, and a very few others have floated around. One possibility of how these got out of Topps is that they were bought in a water damage sale Topps had had some years before the Guernsey auction. Another possibility is that they were stolen by employees or visitors, or were sent out for production purposes and never returned. In any case, after 1989 Topps vehemently denied having any original art left. This made it very hard to understand why non-Guernsey pieces hardly ever surface. In Spring 2002 the Topps denials were finally upended when they started auctioning pieces on eBay. They still will not reveal how many pieces they have, so at the time of this writing we are all waiting with bated breath to see what exactly they will be releasing on eBay.
So the Guernsey auction distributed 360 originals to the masses. What happened to the pieces after that? There wasn't much interest in Wackys or Wacky art for quite a few years. The modern era of Wacky art really divides into two parts, pre- and post-internet (circa 1997-8).
Before the profound influence of the internet on the hobby, the years following the auction saw only modest interest in the art and Lifson and Foster slowly sold off all of their pieces at prices just two to four times what they paid at the auction. The rest of the buyers did not sell their pieces but sat on them, which turned out to be a much smarter thing to do (but at the time it was impossible to predict the rise of the internet and what that would do to the hobby). From 1990 to 1998 the pieces slowly, and sometimes in spurts, changed hands from Foster and Lifson to collectors. Many of the pieces went through a dealer named Robert Tutalo (located somewhere in New England). After this reshuffling, about 3/4 of the pieces ended up in the hands of Mike Gidwitz (a card and art collector in Chicago, and once owner of the famed Honus Wagner baseball card which he sold in 2001 for over a million dollars) and Phil Carpenter (an ex-avid art collector, co-author of several books on Wackys, and a professional biologist). Gidwitz acquired about 135 pieces and Carpenter about 15, Duane Dimock purchased several, including Ratz, and Scott Broberg bought Foster's last four pieces in at the Chicago non-sports show in Spring, 1998. The other 40 or so pieces were distributed to random people around the country, many of which have still to turn up. (Don't bother trying to get Foster or Tutalo to chase these people down, obviously those avenues have all been expended.) Foster, Lifson, and Tutalo sold their pieces for between $250 and $1000, a two to three fold profit over the auction prices.
So this brings us to 1998 and the early days of the internet explosion. At the beginning of 1998 no piece of art was worth much more than 2K, with one exception being that one collector purchased Ratz Crackers for 7K (because it was Ratz). At the time the only people who were really crazy about the art and pursuing them in quantity were Carpenter and Mike Gidwitz. A couple others were marginal fanatics, Scott Broberg, John Mellard, among a few others managed to accumulate about 10 modest pieces each, but basically the hobby at large had yet to wake up to the originals. But all that would soon change.
The first thing that helped to change the general perception of the art was when in 1999 Gidwitz created a web page and sold about a dozen low end pieces. They sat there for quite some time, then all at once prices and furor reached critical mass and suddenly they were all snapped up. This did a lot to increase general awareness of collecting the originals. It's not clear exactly what Gidwitz's intentions were with this web page sale, but if it was to raise perception and consequently the value of his collection, he succeeded brilliantly.
In early 1999 Carpenter acquired the 36 from the NY/NJ collector which had contacted him because of the national ads he had been running for years. This gave Carpenter over 50 pieces and put nearly 200 pieces in the hands of Carpenter and Gidwitz. This is where I came onto the scene. I had been collecting Wackys for about a year but didn't get into the art until early 1999 when I bought Rolaches on eBay for $1100 (my first piece). After receiving it I got the art bug completely. But I felt I had gotten it too late, Gidwitz's pieces were gone and he was talking big bucks for any of his remaining ones. Gidwitz really played the field, and had a lot to do with seeing the prices raise dramatically in 1999. Of course he couldn't have done it without the demand, but he got everything he could out of his collection. In the end the majority of the money that has ever been made on wacky art was made by Gidwitz. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Come March 1999 I realized the only way to get pieces was to overwhelm someone with an over-the-top offer. I was helped by friends and given the chance to purchase five pieces in a private deal (Paul Maul, Duck & Hide, Nutlee's Quit, Ajerx, Dr. Ono). They seemed expensive at the time. But all of this was all before the really big gun showed up. That would change everything forever.
The big gun is Eric Roberts. Eric is the son of wall street investor George Roberts, most well known for his company KKR. Eric was not interested in art until sometime in the Spring of 1999. He bought his first piece on eBay (Pupsi, sold by Carpenter), but he didn't really get the art bug until he got his second piece, Weak Germ. Tom Moore passed up on this piece at the Atlanta toy and collectible show in NJ, a decision which he will probably lament forever. In any case, Weak Germ is the piece that did it to Eric and suddenly he was thinking how he could get all of his favorite pieces.
Eric quickly saw me as both an ally and a competitor, and that would soon lead to epic struggles between us. The tangled web of foes, allies, double agents, and interlopers became bewilderingly complex. Gidwitz of course had many of Eric's favorites, the first he set his sights on was Plastered Peanuts. This would be the piece that broke the damn in terms of a new level of prices. We all knew Gidwitz was trying to raise the price to 10K/piece. He knew Eric wanted Plastered and so named his price at that. Eric paid Mike a visit and walked off with 11 pieces. After two years of staring each other down, Eric would walk off with most of the rest of his collection.
In the Spring of 1999 after Eric had visited Gidwitz, Carpenter who now had over 50 pieces decided the price was where he had to sell some of them to either Eric or me. He started maneuvering to sell us each 8 or 10 pieces. Instead of competing against each other, Eric and I teamed up and made Phil an offer on his entire collection. It was a substantial offer and after some small adjustments he took it, keeping a very small handful of pieces back (pieces which, ironically, we would buy about a year later in another split deal). We split Phil's pieces roughly 1/3, 2/3, with Eric taking 2/3. At this point I had about 25 pieces, Eric about 50, Gidwitz still had some 80 original series, plus a bunch of 1985's. About 30 more pieces (and no real A+ pieces) were in the hands of about six more collectors. This was the extent of the art scene mid-1999.
Then the great dry spell set in. The years 1999 to mid 2001 saw very little art turn up, just a handful of pieces, which baffled everybody since there were still so many missing pieces, and the prices had gone sky high with not only Eric paying 10K now but with six or seven other collectors jumping in for pieces at that level. Eric had even run national advertisements offering 10K for certain pieces, so everybody expected that they would gush out, but the opposite happened. It became almost impossible to get an A+ piece, you had to have connections and usually generate a lot of scheming to get anything decent to come your way, and then you had to dig deep, really deep, into your pockets. The competitivity of it grew fierce, friendships were forged and others broken forever, and feuds waged in every direction. In the Spring of 2000 Dan McKee turned up seven non-Guernsey pieces and auctioned them. The details of how all of this was conducted lead to one of the most epic battles of all time in the hobby (a song was even composed describing the fiasco).
Meanwhile more and more people started getting interested in the art, and the intrigue and subterfuge that was taking place only helped generate more attention to it. In late 1999 there was an international Wacky Pack convention in Philadelphia where about 30 pieces were displayed, and many people saw their first piece there. As a result the number of art owners has grown as more and more people want to get that one piece, and of course one always leads to two, etc...
The great dry spell ended rather abruptly in late 2001. To start with Eric, after thinking about it for a year and a half, finally bought out Gidwitz, walking away with some 80 pieces and leaving behind all of the '85 pieces and about six or seven others he deemed unworthy. Eric would quickly dole out about 20 pieces to other collectors. This minor glut satisfied the market and as a side-effect several other lower grade pieces started hitting the market as well. For the first time prices went down a bit, on the low end, from where you couldn't scrounge any piece for under 3K to where you could pick from several in the 2K range (real dogs though). The wrecked economy contributed to this as well. High end pieces however were still gold, as always.
Also in late 2001 Eric managed to contact the guy who bought about 70 pieces at the auction and who contacted John Mann in 2000. Nobody realized at first that this guy had so many pieces. For a while Eric convinced everybody that this was a different guy from Baltimore - quite an effective smokescreen for a while. He still has most of his pieces, though Eric managed to buy some 10 of them and John Mann auctioned about 10 more. They may hit the market, or Eric may buy them, that is still unknown to me at the time of this writing.
The discovery of this person having 70 pieces marks a watershed where we have (finally) moved out of the times when everybody was agonizing over where on earth all the Guerney art was hiding. However over 150 series 1-16 pieces have still not been heard from yet, most of which are non-Guernsey pieces at this point.
In April, 2002 Topps shocked everybody when they suddenly started auctioning pieces on eBay, that explained a lot more (before this Topps had always adamantly denied having any art left in their vault). These are very exciting times. In the two and a half years since they started selling on eBay they have turned up 24 pieces of original 1-16 art, as well as all of the Can Label art, all of the Irish only pieces, many of the Wacky Ad and Poster art has come out. We wondered for years and years about where all this art was, now we know. Nobody knows how much of the missing art is still at Topps, if depending on how much the find, there may still be a rather large mystery as to where all the non-Guernsey art is. Time will tell, for finally after decades of silence dribs and drabs of information is coming out of Topps. So stay tuned.
So treasure hunting is still a real possibility. Some people are going to find some killer pieces somewhere (and when you do, please write me!).
One final fact of life. When "A" pieces go into Eric Robert's collection they basically are off the table forever, the only way to get one would be to trade another A-piece, money is not a factor for him. So this increases the scarcity dramatically, as Eric has nearly 150 pieces now, and still always looking.
But there are still some 150 pieces unaccounted for, surely many are crammed away in people's houses somewhere and they do not even know the value of what they have. It will be interesting to watch the next 20 years in this. Perhaps at some point a larger community will recognize the artistic value of this art. Perhaps there is one day there will be a trend of appreciation for pop art of this period of innocence, which seems likely. Wacky art will surely always present a great thing to collect. One day these they may be hanging in museums. Wackys stand out as outstanding by any criteria, so it is hard to imagine their future will not be as rich as their past already has, in fact this is probably just the beginning.
Gregory Grant - June, 2002 (updated October 2003, December 2004)