The Happiest Auction on Earth

Disney collectibles are soaring-and a small gallery in Los Angeles is at the peak of the mountain.

  • Category
    Music + Culture
  • Written by
    Michalene Busico
  • Photographed by
    Shane O'Donnell

The architect’s model for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. A snazzy, green Autopia car, original paint and scuffs intact. The heartbreaking “minimum height” sign from the Matterhorn Bobsleds.

All of these Disneyland artifacts and hundreds more—most dating to the early years of the Anaheim theme park—were awaiting auction in December, displayed behind a nondescript storefront on Ventura Boulevard. As Disney fanatics around the world know, Van Eaton Galleries in Sherman Oaks is one of the leading dealers in Mouse collectibles. And some of the gallery’s biggest projected sales yet—including the collections of legendary Imagineer Rolly Crump and noted collector Richard Kraft—are scheduled for later this year. If you’ve ever dreamed of owning a god from the Enchanted Tiki Room or the hand-crafted model of It’s a Small World that convinced Walt Disney to build the ride or an actual Mike Fink Keel Boat, this is your year.

The mastermind behind all of these sales is Mike Van Eaton, a longtime animation art dealer who became a Disney auctioneer almost by accident, when a friend asked him to help unload an unusually large collection. There were over 900 lots in that Story of Disneyland sale in 2015, a two-day affair that brought in more than $1.7 million and put Van Eaton in the Disney memorabilia business. Since then, his Disney auctions—each with its own theme—have seen record-breaking sales, such as the 1953 Disneyland presentation map, which Roy Disney used to drum up investors to build the park. It fetched $708,000 last year, the highest price ever paid for a Disney map at auction.

“Originally, they were going to build the park here in the Valley,” says Van Eaton, who is also an eager Disney collector and geek. “They were going to build it on a little piece of land near the studio in Burbank. Then the plans got bigger and bigger and they needed more land. That’s why they went to Orange County.

“But if you think of the thousands of people employed at the studio, all the guys who inked and painted the cells, there is a big association here in the Valley with Disneyland. It’s a big reason why we have a store on Ventura Boulevard, so people can find us—the families of people who worked on all those movies—and bring us stuff to auction or sell.”

There is plenty of profit to tempt them. Van Eaton estimates that prices for Disney collectibles have tripled over the past two or three years and are still on the rise.

Case in point: those portraits that “stretch” in the beginning of the Haunted Mansion ride. Van Eaton bought one years ago for $4,000. “Of course, I had no place to put it, so I stored it rolled up in a closet,” he says. He eventually sold it for $40,000, only to see a similar stretch painting sell for $150,000 a few years after that. But he points out, “You can still get things for $25 or $30 that are quite worthwhile, and that makes the market very exciting and fresh.

Read more about the business of Disneyana here.