Class of ’89 | In a sense, it began with a gift.
At the time—the year was 1991—Debbie Weiss C’89 was living in Tokyo and working as a trader for the old Barings Bank. Then she went home for a visit.
“My family bought me a present that was an animation cel from Archie comic books,” recalls Weiss, whose family members include Penn trustee George Weiss W’65 (father) and Allison Weiss Brady C’93 (sister). “I had collected Archie comic books when I was little, and I was like, ‘What is this?’
“It was one of those moments when life changes,” she adds. “You eat a brand new kind of food, or you travel to a new place, and you’re like, ‘Wow, my life will never be the same.’”
Within a few years, that life-change had culminated in the opening of Wonderful World of Animation (WWA), the Los Angeles-based gallery and website for animation art and pop art (animationartgallery.com). But in a very real sense, the gallery’s roots go back to when Weiss was a young girl collecting comic books.
“I was getting into them pretty hard core,” she says with a laugh, noting that whenever the new Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide came out she would pore over it, eyeballing not just the prices of the comic books she owned but some she didn’t.
Now, with the Archie cel in her portfolio, she could begin indulging that early passion—first by learning everything she could about animation art in general, then by looking at galleries to see what worked and what could be improved upon. Soon she began buying and selling animation art in her spare time—to “get my feet wet and see how it all worked,” she says.
But Weiss still had a full-time job, and a rather demanding one at that. Around that time she was hired by Oppenheimer and moved to Argentina to keep trading.
“I really couldn’t commit to both,” she says. “I had to choose. I wasn’t able to take care of my clients properly part-time.”
Finally, in 1993, she took the plunge: quitting her job and moving to LA to open the WWA Gallery in the Culver City district.
“I loved trading,” she says. “I really did. But how great that I was able to make a company out of my passion, my hobby. And it just really led from there.”
The difference between her current job and her last one is not as big as you might think, since Weiss spends much of her time monitoring the fluctuations and liquidity in the art market.
“It comes in tremendously handy,” she says of her stock-market background. “I used to make a market in Telefónica Argentina, and now I make a market in Mickey Mouse.”
Since a Snow White cel with Snow White and Dopey in it has a different value from one featuring three of the dwarves, understanding the subtle valuations is vital.
“We pride ourselves on knowing a tremendous amount” about animation art, says Weiss, “and we really work hard to educate our clients to make sure that we [understand] what their goals are. If you were to call me and say, ‘Oh, I want a vintage Betty Boop piece,’ well, there’s only a handful that I’ve ever known in my almost 20 years doing this, so I would make sure that I’m shaping your expectations correctly.”
Though the gallery deals in pop art as well as animation art, the clienteles usually don’t overlap.
“A lot of pop art is new and [made by] newer artists, whereas the animation pieces for the most part are vintage and older,” explains Weiss. “So a lot of people have that kind of historical connection—‘Oh, I watched Snow White as a child.’”
Each year WWA sells “thousands of pieces,” she notes, “and prices on the pieces can range from a couple hundred dollars to the tens of thousands.”
The rarest piece Weiss ever bought and sold was the first-ever color Mickey Mouse cel from the early 1930s.
“We got it from a lady who basically had it in her house,” Weiss says. “It had never been in collectors’ hands before. She contacted us, and we sold it for her. That was really exciting.”
Equally exciting for Weiss is the fact that her gallery counts a sizeable number of celebrities among its clients—ranging from movie star Elizabeth Banks C’96 (who owns an original Simpsons cel) to NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who chose an original drawing from Dumbo and charmed Weiss with his imitation of the voice of the movie’s crows) to Scott Stapp, the lead singer for Creed.
“We’ve had some people from The Simpsons in the gallery,” says Weiss, “like Joe Mantegna, who does the voice of Fat Tony. He does the voice for you and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool!’ Because in my world, he is a big hero.” —S.H.