New Clues On the AMAZING FANTASY #15/SPIDER-MAN Original Art Mystery from the Library of Congress

Amazing Fantasy #15 original art
Amazing Fantasy #15 original art
Credit: Steve Ditko (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Marvel Comics

The original art to 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15, including the first appearance of Spider-Man, rests at the Library of Congress, thanks an anonymous donation. And despite official requests to obtain the donor’s identity… it remains anonymous.

As a lgislative agency of the U.S. government, the Library of Congress is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, but it has its own policies to disclose information at its discretion. Newsarama put in an official request with the Library, and received a redacted version of a U.S. government memorandum and a full version of the art’s Accession/Deposit Log Sheet. While the documents omit information identifying the donor, some small clues can still be had.

Credit: Jim McLauchlin

The memorandum notes that “Neither the donor nor Mr. Ditko want any fanfare associated with this donation,” affirming that Steve Ditko indeed knew this art had resurfaced before the donation was made, and that the Library also received a “letter of offer” from the donor. It would appear that the donor wanted to wash his hands of the 24 pages of original art, as “Per the donor’s request, no letter of acknowledgement is to be sent.”

So the identity of the donor remains anonymous…the same as the history of the art itself. A little history:

In 1974, Marvel Comics enacted a policy to return art to artists. This policy addressed only new art going forward, not art Marvel had from years previous. As to previous art, Marvel assigned staffer Irene Vartanoff to sort and catalog a mess of a warehouse they had rented that contained thousands of pages of original art with little organization.

Vartanoff started the job in 1975, and finished in 1976. The job was lengthy because the job was massive. Vartanoff cataloged 35,530 pages of art in the warehouse, including 934 covers. She gave the list to then-Marvel production manager Sol Brodsky. Almost all the art was from 1960-74, with next to nothing previous to be found. Most of the art present was still in full issue form, but just which issues were spotty. Using Iron Man as a random example, complete issues of #2, #3, #4, #5, #8, #9, #10 and #16 were in the Vartanoff inventory. But nothing from #1, #6, #7, or #11-15 were present.

Credit: Jim McLauchlin

Amazing Fantasy #15 was not present, pegging that issue’s disappearance to pre-1975.

In a way, it’s a miracle any of the art survived at all. Longtime Timely/Marvel Editor Stan Lee would occasionally tip sandwich delivery boys by giving them a page of art, and on the DC end, original art was chopped up and thrown in the incinerator (more on that in a future article). Roy Thomas, who started at Marvel in 1965, recalls very little original art was present in the office, but stat rolls, “rolled up like scrolls from the Alexandria Library!” were present and used to make reprints. Original art in that day and age was largely considered worthless, an intermediate step in a production process.

And that outcome is not at all uncommon.

“People throw away master sound recordings, people throw away original manuscripts of books, all kinds of things,” says Ronald Bienstock. “Many things that had no value back then become valuable collectors items today.”

Bienstock is a lawyer at Scarinci Hollenbeck, a law firm in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. And believe it or not, he thinks the fact that original art was once sandwich tips or cutting-board fodder means that if you find an old piece of Marvel art not on Vartanoff’s inventory, well…it’s probably legally yours.

Credit: Jim McLauchlin

“Clearly if you have an old piece of Spider-Man art, you cannot reproduce it and you do not have the copyright, and that’s an issue that people sometimes get confused on,” he says. “But on that physical piece, my conjecture is that they attached no value to it based on the set of facts you described. If you didn’t give it a value, you can’t come back at a certain point and say ‘Now this tremendous value belongs to me.’ If you gave it away or threw in in the dumpster…that’s gone. It’s no longer yours.”

We now know where the Amazing Fantasy #15 art is, but the original art to two other Marvel Holy Grails, Fantastic Four #1 and #2, have never been located, and were not part of the Vartanoff inventory. More conjecture from Bienstock? He thinks if that Fantastic Four art winds up in your lap, it’s yours to keep.

“If they ascribed no value to it, didn’t seek to protect it, didn’t take any measures to find it, and it wound up with you through a true purchase, it’s yours,” he says. “Maybe it was given away way back when. I don’t think there’s any way the original comic book company could prove it was stolen.”

Proving provenance is exceedingly difficult, and the default setting seems to be “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Some other interesting Steve Ditko art recently hit the market. A complete 8-page Dr. Strange story from Strange Tales #117 was sold by Heritage Auctions in a February 21-23 auction, with individual pages realizing prices anywhere between $45,000 and $228,000. Newsarama made an inquiry of Heritage and asked to speak to the seller, but Heritage spokesman Eric Bradley replied that the seller wished to remain anonymous.

Amazing Fantasy #15 original art
Amazing Fantasy #15 original art
Credit: Steve Ditko (Marvel Comics)

“After checking, I learned the former owner does not wish to be identified due to security concerns,” Bradley said. “And as such, Heritage maintains client confidentiality unless instructed otherwise.”

Curiously, Strange Tales #117 was nowhere to be found on the Vartanoff inventory either. Both this story and the entirety of Amazing Fantasy #15 were “missing together” pre-1975. Cleary they were kept together as complete stories. The source of the original art to these two books could be the same… or it could just a coincidence.

Likely no one could foresee the eye-popping original art prices of today. The circumstance of artists getting their work returned in 1975 was largely filed under “no big whoop.”

“I thought it was a passing phase,” says John Romita, the longtime Marvel Comics art director and iconic Amazing Spider-Man artist. “We knew there were some collectors, but I thought people would say, ‘Oh, I got one of these. Now I don’t need any more.’ I vaguely remember one of the first things I sold was for $15.”

But $15 became $150, then $1500 and now $478,000 and more. Romita looks at it all as water under the bridge, and doesn’t beat himself up over it.

Amazing Fantasy #15 original art
Amazing Fantasy #15 original art
Credit: Steve Ditko (Marvel Comics)

“I was not a good prognosticator,” he laughs. “I hear figures that I can’t even believe any more. I’ve probably ‘lost’ so much money by now…If I had to total up all the money I robbed from myself and gave away, I’d have to put myself in jail. But it’s all like a joke to me. That’s the way you have to look at it.”

And guess what? Another mystery is attached to the Amazing Fantasy #15 art. All 24 original pages are at the Library of Congress. But the cover? That’s still missing in action.

“To the best of my knowledge and Marvel’s knowledge, the art at the Library of Congress does not include the cover,” says Marvel Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Tom Brevoort. “The covers were sent to the printer separately, and not stored with the rest of the books in most cases, and they tended to be the first things given away or liberated.”

Given away? Liberated? Thrown away? It’s 57 years later and we still don’t know. But we’ll continue to peel the onion and take some guesses in a future Newsarama article.

—Similar articles of this ilk are archived on a crummy-looking blog. You can also follow @McLauchlin on Twitter.

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