For those of you who don’t know, Jerry Beck posted last month that Bonhams Entertainment Media would be auctioning off “the only known copy” of Hungry Hobos, a 1928 Disney cartoon with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Their estimated it to sell at $30,000-$40,000, possibly the most ridiculous sum of money I’ve ever heard for a film of any kind.
The ramifications of such a sale could be devastating for film preservation as a whole, as anyone who has taken an active role in film preservation can see (like me, for one). As I said in my original comment on Jerry’s post, the idea of a print of a single cartoon, silent or otherwise, selling for more than $1,000 is utterly insane.
For starters it’s 16mm, which right off the bat indicates that the print is not unique. Exceptionally rare it may be (as is certainly the case with Hungry Hobos), if one 16mm print exists, there were surely more of them, so they are out there, but who knows where. Secondly, at its running time of 5 minutes, 21 seconds, it most certainly is incomplete. So the unknown bidder sank the over $30K into a cartoon missing footage. And sight unseen, without much of a condition report otherwise. What are we talking wear and splice-wise? Warpage? Vinegar? Thirdly, again it’s 16mm – utterly inferior to a 35mm element – of a copyrighted film. What are you going to do with it? Even at $1,000, your chances of recouping the costs by loaning it to the copyright holder for a transfer are slim.
Given the quality of the Oswalds that do survive and are packaged on the Disney Treasures set is sporadically interesting at best, it’s more than likely Hungry Hobos is no lost masterwork. What is going on in the buyer’s head that makes this seem like a sound investment?
Tom, who has done more than anyone I can think of to preserve silent animation, fears this may set a precedent – that now all silent animation will be marketed as rare diamonds either online or at auction houses, preventing people like him, Steve Stanchfield, and Ray Pointer from making sure these films are truly cared for and made as widely available as possible. There might be a bit of trepidation in thinking like that, but it’s still a fair point, and anything that could sabotage the efforts of fine historians is cause for concern.
It is my sincerest hope that anyone with even a passing interest will publicly scorn Bonhams, and the Huntley Film Archives for that matter, for their recent affront on the institution that is the genuine film archive. Please actively voice your indignation to ensure this is a one-time fluke.