Essay #1 - Collecting Magic Art
“Nothing touches an artist as much as the person who says 'I would like to own this little piece of your soul...here's some cash.'” —Matt Cavotta “Taste the Magic” January 18 2006
For as long as Magic: The Gathering has been around there has been iconic Magic artwork. Serra Angel Shivan Dragon—without the resonant artwork of these and other cards Magic never would've become the popular game that it is today.
How powerful is the lure of such iconic art? A Near Mint / Mint Alpha Shivan Dragon is just under $200 in the StarCityGames.com store...if you can ever find one in stock. Sleight of Mind right below it in the list of Alpha cards is just under $25. Two Alpha rares with roughly equal tournament play (virtually none). The art and the iconic reputation of Shivan Dragon make all the difference.
Most Magic players are also Magic collectors to at least some extent and artwork is one of the key elements of collecting. No Grand Prix is complete without the long lines at the Magic artist booths where illustrators for the game sign cards and sell prints posters and sometimes sketches and original artwork. (John Avon is returning to the US for Grand Prix Dallas in April 2011. The wait will be long and entirely worthwhile if you're as much of an Avon fan as I am.)
I've observed four major stages to Magic art collecting. It all starts with:
Stage One: Collecting the Cards
It's a simple but logical first stage; few people collect original Magic art without collecting the cards first. There are exceptions though. The Brothers Hildebrandt Greg and the late Tim are famous collectors of decades' worth of illustration art for Lord of the Rings Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons so their Magic paintings have an audience that's broader than just Magic players.
Then again you're reading this on a Magic strategy site so the assumption that you own Magic cards is probably safe.
How much difference can art make in the collectability of a card? Plenty. I can imagine less art-enthused readers thinking about my first examples Serra Angel and Shivan Dragon and saying “Come on! Everyone wanted a Shivan Dragon back then! It's just a popular card with a lot of nostalgia.”
There's a way to control for nostalgia though by comparing functionally identical cards released at the same time. Consider the promotional APAC Land Sets cellophane packages containing one card of each basic land type. Each land card has artwork themed around one of the Asian-Pacific (or APAC) nations and each color of cellophane (Blue Clear and Red) has its own distinct art set. StarCityGames.com retails each wrapped set for the same price $14.99.
The individual cards on the other hand vary wildly in price. The APAC Red Swamp with its “That's supposed to be New Zealand?” landscape costs $1.99 but the APAC Blue Swamp (Taiwan graveyard) and APAC Clear Swamp (Australian grotto with statue) are $4.99. All three APAC Forests are $1.99 or $2.49 and rather nondescript in the bargain with a single small “Asian” building or not even that whereas the unique Plains start at $3.99 (the APAC Blue Plains with Australian icons Uluru and a kangaroo) and go up to $4.99 (the APAC Clear Plains with Rebecca Guay's painting of the Great Wall of China) and even $5.99 (the APAC Red Plains with a field of Japanese sunflowers).
Art doesn't have everything to do with the demand (and thus the prices) for the various APAC lands but the price differences within the Swamp category and between the Forest and Plains cards show how art can influence collectability.
So you have a favorite piece of Magic art or a few. The next step is...
Stage Two: Collecting Prints and Posters
Prints and posters are a great way to enjoy your favorite Magic artwork without bringing cards into inappropriate places or unduly straining your budget. (Magic cards in the office? Bad. Poster of John Avon's Invasion Plains on the wall? Good and occasionally mistaken for one of the Impressionist masters.)
Under their contracts Magic artists can sell posters and prints featuring their artwork for the game. For the artists that do it can be a valuable source of income. On John Avon's galleries and shop web page for example he sells his Standard prints for $20 and whenever he's a guest artist at a Grand Prix or Pro Tour there's always a line.
I usually pair my print buying with getting cards signed by Magic artists who are guests at Grand Prix events or Prereleases. The artist may be signing for free but there's a reason I led off with that Cavotta quote. He wrote it with regard to Magic paintings but it's true for prints as well.
Don't think that print will make a difference to the artist? Tell that to Ryan Pancoast who bought a printer with the money from his first Grand Prix guest appearance. There may be a lot of older established artists in Magic but there are also plenty of them who are young hustling and hungry. Smiles and thanks are nice. Print sales keep the lights on.
Said young hustling and hungry artists are also great sources of unique Magic works which leads me to...
Stage Three: The Artist's Hand - Collecting Custom Sketches and Artist-Made Card Alterations
It's not that custom sketches and card alterations are their exclusive domain—I have custom sketches from Dan Scott and Mark Tedin in my collection—but the emerging Magic artist usually has lower prices for his or her work as well as more willingness and opportunity to do both.
When John Avon has a line of autograph seekers trailing from him to the door and the line doesn't stop until two hours before his flight leaves he doesn't have time to do great and fancy alterations. Less well-known artists on the other hand have shorter lines and are better able to serve the sketch and alterations market. This isn't to say that all do—for example Steven Belledin is strongly anti-alteration—but if in doubt ask politely. The worst an artist can do is say no.
As for specific artists who make great sketches and alterations I have to point out Ryan Pancoast and Terese Nielsen respectively. I first met Pancoast at Grand Prix Houston where I had him make a custom sketch of an Elemental token on the back of a Plains artist's proof. (His oft-updated blog has a post with six sample sketches which range from adorable to awesome and those are the ones he didn't sell.) Terese Nielsen's famous “extreme alterations” have been giving Force of Will a new look for years and while she's not taking any new consignments for now she occasionally puts her own projects up for sale. Her alterations aren't cheap but they are amazing.
A majority of today's Magic artists create digital illustrations for the game and for those artists a sketch or alteration is as good as it gets on an art-collecting scale. If you're a fan of the painters though the holdouts and the throwbacks there is the ultimate stage...
Stage Four: The Big Game - Collecting Preliminary and Final Original Magic Art
“Here's the card...and here's the painting on the card.” Short of getting your face placed on a Magic card (Jon Finkel as Shadowmage Infiltrator Bob Maher as Dark Confidant) it's hard to have bigger bragging rights over your favorite piece of Magic art than being able to say you own it.
Maybe you've seen the Original Art link on the sidebar to the left before. If not go over and take a look. I'll warn you: original Magic art is not cheap. The most expensive item in there? It's a painting of a legendary Dragon Mr. Rorix Bladewing at $1894.99. That painting isn't the most expensive item in the StarCityGames.com store—hello Beta Black Lotus—but it's close.
The high prices make sense though in terms of supply and demand. The market for original Magic artwork is fundamentally different from the market for Magic cards because each piece is unique and a variety of factors go into price. More popular artists such as John Avon can charge more for his original art than a new Magic artist just starting in the business. Artwork content is also significant as the decorative value of a landscape or a Dragon painting is far higher than that of a “destroy target creature” spell. There's also painting size to consider; most Magic illustrations are no bigger than a sheet of notebook paper but a few artists (Volkan Baga early Ryan Pancoast) work on a larger scale.
The price on the Rorix Bladewing art may be too high for you to afford but don't despair. Regain your Equilibrium and check out this piece of art. Jeff Miracola's abstract and awesome original painting is just $394.99. Better yes? That isn't much more than a playset of Jace the Mind Sculptor and should be accessible to many with careful budgeting and saving.
Can't go that high? If you're just looking for “one painting” you do have other options. Carl Critchlow one of the most prolific Magic artists has an extensive selection of paintings for sale. Are you a fan of the Ichorid deck in Legacy or Vintage? Want to immortalize your love of sideboard card Chain of Vapor? That'll be $250 plus shipping (it's the third card down). His prices go as low as $200 as I'll show in a bit.
It's possible to do even better than $200 but it requires a lot of research networking and negotiating with artists. I've done it before in a private transaction but don't expect to make “the big score.”
If you're willing to put in the time you might be able to come up with a similar result in your search for the perfect Magic painting. I say “search” because remarkably few Magic artists actually maintain an online shop or even a price list for their original works. As an example John Avon's website has said “originals will be available soon” for several months now. (And when they do go up they'll all be from Mirrodin or earlier as Avon went digital around that time. I'm glad for the artwork he's done since but John Avon giving up the airbrush and going digital was like Bob Dylan going electric. I know why they both did it but it just isn't right!)
Maybe $200 is still out of your budget. If so preliminary works—early sketches drawings and paint studies—are an alternative. The least expensive drawings I've found on artists' websites are just $20 or $25 not much more than a print or poster. Sure it's a small black-and-white drawing rather than a piece of full-color art but it's also a unique piece of Magic-related art and it could become a stepping stone to original paintings. My still small collection of original Magic art started with a Matt Cavotta preliminary drawing for Roar of the Kha for example.
For those who want a piece of original Magic art but don't want to sink hours into research or jump into artist networking feet-first here's your cheat sheet. I've compiled a short list of a dozen Magic drawings and paintings that are available for sale right now with minimal hassle. Please note: prices and availability are current as of the date of first publication. There may be additional charges for shipping especially if the artist is in another country.
Four original Magic drawings/preliminary works you can buy for $100 or less:
Eight original Magic paintings you can buy for $400 or less:
From cards to posters custom sketches to a handful of carefully selected original paintings collecting Magic art has given me great rewards at all four stages. I've been able to share the gift of Magic art with friends (Nantuko Blightcutter) and family (Foxfire). Omar Rayyan's Plains and Island don't just exist on Shadowmoor; they are a painting in my apartment and cards in my deck boxes.
If you've never collected Magic's art before it's a completely different game. Who wants to play?