Federal Way shop sells first Superman comic for record $3.2 million

The Washington PostAugust 25, 2014 

A Federal Way comics store on Sunday sold an original Superman comic, bought for 10 cents at a West Virginia newsstand in 1938, for $3.2 million, making it the most expensive comic book ever sold.

The copy of Action Comics No. 1 – better known as the book that essentially launched the entire superhero industry in 1938 by featuring Superman’s debut – was sold on eBay by Darren Adams of Pristine Comics.

The previous record for a comic book was $2.1 million, for another Action Comics No. 1, sold by the actor Nicolas Cage in 2011.

“This book is like a museum piece,” Adams said of the copy he sold. “It’s a freak-of-nature work.”

The comics’ cover features a caped Superman lifting an automobile. Its colors are especially vivid on both the covers, and interior pages, which show a baby Superman (in diapers) lifting furniture over his head, and Superman as a young man wearing a business suit and leaping over a skyscraper.

On the CGC comic book grading scale, it rates a 9.0, the highest rated of any of the three dozen known, unrestored copies in existence.

After being purchased in 1938, the comic book was stored in a cedar chest “at high altitude” for four decades. When the man died, a collector bought it from his estate.

A couple of owners and more than 30 years later, Adams purchased it for seven figures.

He first saw the copy in a bank vault.

“It wasn’t just a copy of Action Comics No. 1,” he said. “It was the copy. I was floored. The emotion was overwhelming.”

The winning bid, according to eBay: $3,207,852. Adams and eBay are donating 1 percent of the sale price to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation for spinal-cord injury and paralysis research.

Christopher Reeve died in 2004, nearly a decade after an equestrian accident in Virginia left him a quadriplegic. In the 1970s, the strapping, 6-foot-4 Reeve became a household name when he began starring in Richard Donner’s Superman films.

“Christopher Reeve is the most iconic Superman of them all … ,” Adams said. “And it’s a great cause — stem-cell research. I can’t think of a more natural charity to align with this book.”

“MILITARY BRAT” TURNS COMICS COLLECTOR

Adams said he turned down multimillion-dollar offers for the comic before going to auction.

“The idea of sitting at $2 million was never really a risk in my mind,” he said. “Too many people have such an interest in this book.”

Only a few dozen unrestored copies of Action Comics No. 1 are known to still exist, Adams said, and perhaps only seven are in such good condition that they receive a grade higher than 6.0 out of 10 on the CGC grading scale.

Among known copies of the comic, Adams said, “only two have perfect-white pages” – including his.

The book’s provenance seems almost if by providence.

“What happens next is kind of cool,” Adams said. “This young guy – a collector who’s getting going – goes to the estate … and sees this book and sees the pages are incredible. So he (bought it and) reconstructed himself a similar cedar chest” to store it in.

Adams, 53, began as a young collector himself. He was an avid comics reader by age 12, pulled in by artist Neal Adams’s early-1970s work on Batman.

As a “military brat,” Adams said, he moved a lot, going to 13 different schools, in the Seattle area, and Oregon and Germany. He was always “the new kid,” and had no siblings, so comic books often kept him company.

By age 11, he started a lawn-mowing business – renting push mowers and getting friends to do the mowing for a cut of the money – and poured much of his profits into buying comic books.

Eventually, Adams became largely a collector and dealer of sports trading cards – an area of the business in which he could be sufficiently dispassionate – as opposed to his beloved comics.

“I had no emotional attachment to trading cards,” Adams says of entering the business in his early 20s. “And I applied everything I learned with comic books.”

About a decade ago, Adams began collecting comics as a sideline business. More than 30 years after first cracking a Neal Adams Bat-book, his cartoon fandom and sense of commerce met.

PAYING SEVEN FIGURES FOR A COMIC

For years, Adams has been willing to travel around the world to buy collectibles. Because of his experience, he didn’t get his hopes up when a seller in the United States contacted him several years ago to offer a 1938 Superman book.

“I saw this scan – a private e-mail with an image – and held some reservations,” Adams recalled. “Any marking on a book at all can impact the value of a book by hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Nevertheless, he hopped on a plane and saw the book in person.

“The cover was so bright and vivid,” Adams said. “The corners were real sharp. I was very surprised.

“Then I saw the interior of the book, and I was blown away by the depthness of the color and the suppleness of the page. ... I’m looking at this book – this might be the best copy in existence.

“It was a surreal moment.”

Adams paid a seven-figure sum, and the potential “best copy in existence” was his.

PROFIT OUTWEIGHS COLLECTING

Some comics fans would never sell a book this rare. But Adams is a collectibles businessman, too, and keeping valuable books in circulation, and making a profit in return, is what he does.

“I actually held it for a few years – I was so excited about this book,” he said. “And equally exciting to having a book of this condition is the fact that nobody knew it existed.

“Most books have a history … but this book was totally off the grid, and nobody knew about it till I made it known.”

Once Adams decided to sell, his next step was to decide how he wanted to sell it. Metropolis/ComicsConnect and Heritage Auctions have handled record-breaking vintage comic books.

Yet Adams believed eBay could deliver a wider general audience.

“I’ve done business with the major auction houses,” Adams said, but “I didn’t want to simply stick with the comics crowd (of buyers.) I wanted to get a worldwide audience for this book. … And nobody has a bigger reach than eBay.”

“Darren was sort of exploring his options and trying to figure out the best avenue for selling what is obviously an extraordinarily special book,” said Gene Cook, eBay’s general manager of emerging verticals. “In talking to us, he wanted to gauge our level of excitement and interest.

“We love everything about this book,” Cook continued. “We love the pop-culture aspect of it … and the level of its quality is truly unprecedented. The people who have held it in their hands – it’s a magical experience.”

COMICS AS HIGH-PRICED ART

Adams said he knows some people criticize placing a high price tag on a comic book.

“The mind-set is different than it should be,” he said. “The first time this comic book cracked a million (at auction in 2010), I thought it was dirt-cheap. It is the holy grail.”

To those people who question why this book should sell for $3 million, Adams’s retort is: “Why shouldn’t it?”

Comic books have generally been perceived in the United States as a “low” art built on rapid publication and mass sales once routinely in the millions, Adams said. But how is this so different, he asks, from stamp collection?

Just two months ago, he notes, a rare 19th century stamp sold in New York for a record $9.5 million:

“And,” Adams pointed out, “it was a one-cent postage stamp.”

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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