Sotheby’s loss was a Berkeley auction house’s gain.
In the cut-throat, high-stakes world of international auctions, Sotheby’s lost out on a once-in-a-lifetime comic book sale to West Berkeley-based PBA Galleries. PBA will auction off the DC Universe Collection, which consists of every single DC comic book from 1934 to 2014, some 43,000 books.
Sotheby’s tried and failed for years to sell the collection in its entirety, before the comics’ anonymous owner decided to go to the Berkeley firm, which promised a different approach.
The collection will be broken down into several sales that will take place over the next two years, beginning with a Nov. 9 live auction titled Part 1: the Batman Collection, which contains 322 lots. Among them is the collection’s most coveted item: the debut of Batman in a 1939 Detective Comics book. His image also appears on the cover.
Bidding for the Batman debut will start at $10,000, with an expected sale between $20,000 and $30,000, according to the sale’s catalog. A summary of the book’s plot, excerpted from Michael L. Fleisher’s The Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes, describes Batman as matching wits with the Monk, a werewolf-vampire and “cunning and diabolical villain.” Batman “ultimately destroys the Monk and his raven-haired accomplice Dala by firing silver bullets into their bodies as they lie resting in their coffins in the Monk’s castle stronghold in far-off Hungaria.”
The DC Universe Collection is one of many high-profile auctions that take place at PBA Galleries, considered one of the world’s largest specialty auction houses, with a focus on works on paper. PBA moved to 605 Addison St. in Berkeley in 2019, leaving its Sutter Street location in San Francisco due to rising rents.
Sharon Gee and her husband, Gregory Krisilas, have owned PBA Galleries since 2013. They consider themselves the “latest caretakers” of this Bay Area legacy business, which started out as California Book Auctions in downtown San Francisco in 1955.
All items in PBA auctions are on consignment. “We do not buy items outright,” Gee said.
In addition to comic books, PBA’s specialty includes rare books, maps, atlases, manuscripts, photos and art — but most collectors know it as a source of collectible books of all genres. Its name changes over the years reflect its move into categories like comics, as well as pens and watches, and a desire to achieve a worldwide clientele.
The auction house also does a brisk business in artwork and books connected to the region and Californiana. In 2022, PBA sold the first book ever printed in California, Jose Figueroa’s 1835 Manifesto, for $361,500.
In recent months, some of the price-breaking sales have included first editions of Herbert Frank’s Dune ($22,500), Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven ($10,000) and Octavia Butler’s Kindred ($7,500), part of a June 2 science fiction auction.
On Sept. 7, at one of the house’s twice yearly premiere sales, an 1850 handwritten letter from Charlotte Bronte to her publisher, revealing that Currer Bell was her pen name, sold for $81,250. An Oct. 5 auction featured books from the collection of actor Robin Williams and his wife, Marsha Garces Williams, including a first edition of Dickens’ Great Expectations, which sold for $15,000.
Upcoming auctions include the Shawn Donnille Collection of natural history, rare books and manuscripts on Nov. 16. In it are a large assortment of Bohemian Club fine printed plays, scripts, maps and mailings. “Since the Bohemian Club is a private club, much of this material has not been available to non-members,” Gee said.
On Nov. 30, a literature sale will include works by the beats and the counterculture, followed by a “fine funnybooks” auction on Jan. 18 featuring works by R. Crumb.
PBA holds book auctions every other week and about six comic book auctions a year. Most are held Thursdays at 11 a.m., with previews starting the preceding Monday by appointment.
The pandemic quashed the in-person experience, but more bidders are returning. PBA also runs timed sales, which are conducted online like eBay sales.
How the DC comics sale came to be
Ivan Briggs, PBA’s Director of Comics and Fine Writing Instruments, discovered the DC collection in the United Kingdom. News of the sale among comic-book collectors lit up the internet across several platforms.
“There’s a lot of interest in the DC Comics sale,” Gee said. “There are comic books in it that haven’t been on the market for a long time.”
In a June 2 boingboing interview, Briggs said the collection was amassed by the British music writer and producer Ian Levin, who then sold it to the current consignor, who wishes to remain anonymous, around 2014. Though the consignor originally wanted to sell the collection in its entirety for $10 million through Sotheby’s, “it didn’t sell for years,” according to the interview. Briggs was able to clinch the deal for PBA by selling the historic collection piece-by-piece.
While that might be good news for individual collectors, given the historic nature of the sale and that bids can come in from all over the world, the competition is likely to be fierce.
Paul Purcell, manager of The Escapist Comic Bookstore in the Claremont neighborhood, said he hadn’t heard of the gallery or the sale until contacted by Berkeleyside. “I’ve never heard of an entire DC collection up for sale,” he said. “That’s amazing.”
“It’s certainly very good news for comic book collectors,” Purcell said. “It’s exciting for anybody who collects comics to be able to have the ability to fill in any of the comics that they’re missing,”
He said the store, however, is not interested in buying anything because “we’re very small. We don’t have that kind of money.”
The auction house is busy cataloging the rest of the collection, which will be brought to auction starting in March with Part 2: Detective Comics Before Batman. According to Gee, three to five more sales will be held in 2024 and “probably more in 2025.”
“People like the live auction process because of the excitement,” Gee said. “They come thinking they will get a bargain.”
Prospective buyers can view Part 1 of the collection online and in person by appointment. The auction will be held live and live streamed and also include phone, online and absentee bidding. Those who wish to attend the live auction or preview should call 415-989-2665 or email PBA.
"*" indicates required fields