Illustration Art: Collecting the Stage

“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

Oscar Wilde

One of the most popular and fascinating subject areas of original illustration is the performing arts. These works bring dance, music, acting, literature, history, fashion, design, and architecture into a tangible realm, usually through set designs or costume sketches. The works they depict unite their audience, often crossing racial, class, and cultural borders. They always reflect the human condition and, as Wilde said, allow us to share that sense with one another.

And while people collect what they love, sometimes what draws one to an image can develop greater meaning over time, depending upon life’s circumstances. Collecting is an ongoing dialogue and mirrors one’s connection to the world.

Aside from one’s own emotional connection to a work, there are a few things to keep in mind when collecting works of stage and costume design for value as well. These may consist of the historical importance of a play or performance. Was it an award winner, an actor’s breakout role, a work that traveled the world? Condition is also a factor to consider, as many of these were truly “working drawings” that were carried around from studios to the tables and floors of theaters, preservation is sometimes necessary. Examples are shown through these past auction highlights.

Set Designs

Jo Mielziner

Set designs are an artist’s vision of how a scene will appear to the audience and are generally based on the size of the stage and theater. Jo Mielziner was regarded as one of the most prolific, influential, and successful scenic and lighting designers from the Golden Age of Broadway. We are proud to have handled several of his works.

A number of these historically important factors came together in the current record-holder for the designer, Pet Shop Drop, a backdrop sign for Act One, Scene Two of the 1940 Broadway production of Pal Joey, directed by George Abbott with music by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Premiering on Christmas Day of 1940 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, the opening-night cast included Gene Kelly in his first lead role as ne’er-do-well nightclub owner Joey Evans. It was the third-longest run of any Rodgers and Hart musical and became increasingly popular through revivals and the 1957 film starring Frank Sinatra. The Pet Shop scrim is notable for being the backdrop against which one of the two most famous songs of the play, “I Could Write a Book” and “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” were performed. A beautiful, soft monochrome image at an impressive 20×26 inches, it is mixed media, with chalk, wash, airbrush, and correction fluid on blue paper.

In addition to being in excellent condition and hitting so many important historical notes, it is titled by Mielziner, has his personal artist’s stamp, and that of his professional union, The United Scenic Artists, who additionally titled and marked it with their design number.

William Oden Waller

William Oden Waller, Manhattan Mary, set design for the 1927 Broadway production. Sold December 14, 2017 in Illustration Art for $77,500.

On the flipside of Mielziner’s placid backdrop was the dynamic stage design for the roaring twenties New York musical extravaganza at the Apollo Theater, Manhattan Mary.  Created by the studio of master stage designer William Oden Waller, it is a riot of movement and color, much in tune with the style of Erté, one of the production’s artistic contributors.

So nearly alive is it that one can practically hear the jazz musicians belting out their instruments. Its gorgeous composition, a perfect depiction of the Jazz Era, and provenance stamps from Waller’s studio made this a hotly contested work, realizing a price of $77,500, miles over its presale estimate.

Diversity on Stage

Stage productions can also reach across racial barriers, and seeing live productions with a diverse cast can have a meaningful impact on viewers and critics. 

BIPOC Representation

A pair of stage designs for Geoffrey Holder’s 1975 Broadway production of The Wiz, by the Emmy- and Peabody-award winning designer Tom John, held wide appeal to collectors. With its all-Black cast, this groundbreaking stage production was an early example of the entry of African American culture into Broadway’s mainstream. Charlie Small’s musical adaptation of William F. Brown’s 1974 book The Wiz was a modern retelling of L. Frank Baum’s beloved children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The production had 1,672 total performances and won seven Tony Awards in 1975, including Best Musical.

The pair of works and the related lots in the December 2019 sale held the added bonus of something we love to see in the Illustration Art department: evidence of the artist’s creative process. As the department’s cataloguer Laura Polucha noted, “the iterations of designs worked out on tracing paper, complete with smudges and dapples of ink thrown from John’s quick brush, emphasize their purpose as functional documents, but also give the artwork character, and create a sense of intimacy with the artist and his method of production.”

Related Reading: Al Hirschfeld Caricatures & Theater Portraits

LGBTQ+ Representation

W. Robert La Vine, costume design for the character Donald in the 1970 film The Boys in the Band, 1969. Sold August 13, 2020 in LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History for $3,000.

Queer stage and cinema found a voice in the late Mart Crowley. His 1966 Off-Broadway play and the screenplay for the 1970 film adaptation of The Boys in the Band was groundbreaking for its open portrayal of gay life, and was one of the first to feature gay main characters. Featured in our August 2020 sale of LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History was the ink-and-watercolor costume design for the character Donald, by illustrator W. Robert La Vine. It, too, had La Vine’s signature, located within a United Scenic Artists Local 829 union stamp.

Illustration Art Crossovers

Edward Gorey

Edward Gorey, the popular author and illustrator of humorous tales with a Gothic twinge, was equally known for his love of the ballet and theater. He designed sets and costumes for a variety of theater pieces, the most famous being the Broadway production of Dracula, and produced several shows based on his own works. A pair of illustrations that focused on the audience, rather than the stage itself, offered in our July 2020 sale of Illustration Art brought a record price for the artist. His Swan Lake ballet costume sketches and those for Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni showcase his love of drama, flair, silhouette, and movement. Original works by the eternally popular Gorey always bring strong prices, and those for famous performances are among the most coveted.

Related Reading: Examining Edward Gorey’s Market


Gorey was also clearly influenced by the master costume and stage designer, Romain de Tirtoff, known as Erté, whose flamboyant and painstakingly detailed costume designs are always sought after at auction. They are gorgeous to display and admire and always offer a sense of fantasy and high glamour. A beautiful example is his Californie. This original 1917 costume design, for the revue American Millionairess, was created in Paris. Painted in his usual medium of gouache, it also contained stunningly lush ground-powdered bronze “beads” to create the fabric panels sweeping down from her arms, held out like a rare bird’s.

Related Reading: The Rise of Illustration Art in the Public Eye

Do you have a theatrical set or costume design that we should look at?

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