A rare Tintin cover illustration set a new world record yesterday, becoming the most expensive comic book art in the world after selling at auction for a staggering €3,175,400 (about $3.84 million USD), according to a statement.
Tintin creator Hergé crafted the elaborate design—intended to grace the cover of his 1936 comic book The Blue Lotus—with ink, gouache and watercolors. In the tale, intrepid boy reporter Tintin and his dog Milou, or “Snowy” in English translations, travel to China, where they dismantle a Japanese spy network and bust an opium-smuggling ring. The proposed cover image shows Tintin and Snowy hiding in a large vase framed against a black background and peering out at an enormous, floating red dragon that looms overhead.
“Hergé was determined to make the reader shudder,” says comic book expert Eric Leroy in a video produced by the Artcurial auction house. “Tintin, facing this magnificent dragon, wears an anxious expression. What dangers might threaten him?”
Per the Associated Press, Hergé’s publisher told him that his original design would be too expensive to mass-produce. As a compromise, Hergé created a pared-down—and cheaper—version for the 1936 cover, removing the floating Chinese characters, swapping colors and changing the shading on the dragon, among other adjustments, according to the video.
Hergé gave the original design as a gift to Jean-Paul Casterman, his editor’s 7-year-old son. The paper was folded up and placed in a drawer, where it remained until 1981, reports Sian Cain for the Guardian.
“This painting is so rare because it has never been on the private market before,” Leroy tells CNN’s Christopher Johnson.
As the Guardian notes, Hergé’s work had previously set the record for the most expensive comic book art in 2014, when original ink flyleaf drawings used in the Adventures of Tintin series sold to an American collector for €2.65 million.
Born Georges Remi in 1907, the Belgian illustrator adopted Hergé as a pen name in 1924, five years before he started publishing Tintin stories, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The French-language comics, which featured Tintin embarking on voyages and swashbuckling adventures around the world, eventually became one of the the most popular European cartoon series of the 20th century.
According to the official Tintin website, The Blue Lotus—the fifth in Hergé’s Tintin series and a commercial success—marked a major transition in the author’s style, as he began to research the countries he would portray extensively in each book. Many believe that one character in this story, Chang Chong-Chen, a young Chinese orphan that Tintin saves from drowning, was inspired by Hergé’s real-life friendship with Chang Chong-jen (Zhang Chongren).
Chongren was a Chinese sculptor and art student who lived in Brussels. In the comic book, Tintin has conversations with Chang Chong-Chen in which he satirizes European misconceptions about Chinese people and criticizes Japanese military action in China—insights that were likely inspired by Chongren, as Tobias Grey reported for the Wall Street Journal last December.
In the decades since the illustrator’s death in 1983, the cartoon franchise has faced criticism for its portrayal of colonialist attitudes toward other countries. One frequently cited example appears in Tintin in the Congo, a 1931 comic that depicts African people as childish, lazy caricatures. European colonizers often employed these racist characterizations as justifications for the exploitation and colonization of parts of the African continent.
Casterman’s children put the Blue Lotus artwork up for sale on Thursday. Expected to sell for between €2 and €3 million, the art launched a “frenzied” bidding, surpassing the €2 million mark “within seconds,” according to the Guardian.
“Owing to its uniqueness, this masterpiece of comic art deserves its world record and confirms that the comic-strip market is in excellent health,” says Leroy in the statement, per a translation by Artnet News’ Sarah Cascone.