DALLAS — Billy Wright plunked down dime after dime for comic books while growing up in the late 1930s and early 1940s, caring for the collection he started around the age of 9 until his death more than half a century later. On Wednesday, most of that collection sold for a whopping $3.5 million.
Wright's 345 comics, nearly all of which were published from 1936 through 1941, included many of the most prized issues ever, including Detective Comics No. 27, which features the debut of Batman, and Action Comics No. 1, in which Superman's first appears.
Experts say Wright's collection, which included 44 of The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide's top 100 issues from comics' golden age, was remarkable for its number of rare issues, but also because it was compiled by a single person in childhood who kept it in good condition until his death in 1994 at age 66.
"This really has its place in the history of great comic book collections," said Lon Allen, the managing director of comics for Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, which oversaw the auction in New York City.
The copy of Detective Comics No. 27, from 1939, drew the highest bid Wednesday, selling for $523,000, including a buyer's premium, Allen said. Wright's Action Comics No. 1, from 1938, sold for about $299,000; Batman No. 1, from 1940, sold for about $275,000; and Captain America No. 2, a 1941 issue with Adolf Hitler on the cover, sold for about $114,000.
"It was amazing seeing what they went for," said Michael Rorrer, who discovered his late great uncle's neatly stacked comics in a basement closet while cleaning out his great aunt's Martinsville, Va., home after she died last year.
Most comics from the golden age – the late 1930s into the 1950s – fell victim to wartime paper drives, normal wear and tear and mothers throwing them out, said J.C. Vaughn, associate publisher of Overstreet. Of the 200,000 copies of Action Comics No. 1 produced, about 130,000 were sold and the about 70,000 that didn't sell were pulped. Today, experts believe only about 100 copies are left in the world, he said.
"The scope of this collection is, from a historian's perspective, dizzying," Vaughn said.
There were 227 of the collection's comic books sold on Wednesday for $3,466,264. The remaining comics, which are of lesser value, will be sold in online auctions Friday and Sunday and are expected to fetch about $100,000.
Rorrer, 31, said he didn't realize how valuable the comics were until months after returning home to Oxnard, Calif., when he mentioned them to a co-worker who mused that it would be quite something if he had Action Comics No. 1.
"I went home and was looking through some of them, and there it was," said Rorrer, who then began researching the collection's value in earnest.
He reached out to his mother, Lisa Hernandez, who still had half the comics at her home in League City, Texas, that she intended to give to his brother in Houston. They then went through their boxes, checking comic after comic off the list.
Hernandez said it really hit her how valuable the comics were when she saw the look on Allen's face when the auction house expert came to her house to look through the comics.
"It was kind of hard to wrap my head around it," Allen said.
The find was a complete surprise for the family, and it is unclear if Ruby Wright was aware of the collection's significance. Rorrer said he remembers her making only one fleeting reference to comics: Upon learning he and his brother liked comic books, she said she had some she would one day give them. He said his great uncle never mentioned his collection.
Allen, who called the collection "jaw-dropping," noted that Wright "seemed to have a knack" for picking up the ones that would be the most valuable.
"There were some really hard to find books that were in really, really great condition," said Paul Litch, the primary grader at Certified Guaranty Company, an independent certification service for comic books.
"You can see it was a real collection," Litch said. "Someone really cared about these and kept them in good shape."
Hernandez said it makes sense that her uncle – even as a boy – had a discerning eye. The man who went to The College of William and Mary before having a long career as a chemical engineer for DuPont was smart, she said. And, she added, Wright was an only child whose mother kept most everything he had. She said that they found games from the 1930s that were still in their original boxes.
Heritage Auctions: http://www.ha.com