A rejected Tintin cover illustrated by Hergé that was gifted to a child and kept in a drawer for decades has just missed setting a new world record as the most expensive comic book artwork, selling at auction for €2.6m (£2.3m) on Thursday.
Le Lotus Bleu was created in 1936 by the Belgian artist, born Georges Remi, using Indian ink, gouache and watercolour. It had been intended for the eponymous cover of his fifth Tintin title, which sees the boy reporter head to China in order to dismantle an opium trafficking ring.
Hergé was told the painting would be too expensive to mass produce because it featured too many colours, so he painted another version with a black dragon and a blank red background, which became the cover. He then gave the first artwork to Jean-Paul Casterman, the seven-year-old son of his editor, Louis Casterman. It was folded in six and put in a drawer, where it stayed until 1981, when Jean-Paul asked Hergé to sign it.
The artwork, put up for sale by Jean-Paul’s children at Artcurial auction house in Paris, had been expected to draw bids of up to €3m. It reached €2m within seconds of frenzied bidding. Another €50,000 would have matched the previous record for comic art, set in 2018 when an American fan bought the original ink flyleaf drawings used on all the Tintin adventures printed between 1937 and 1958 for €2.65m.
Before that, in 2014, an original and pristine copy of the Action Comics #1, the first comic to feature Superman that once sold for 10 cents in the US, sold on an eBay auction for $3.2m (€2.6m; £2.3m).
The auction had previously been disputed by Nick Rodwell, the husband of Fanny Vlamynck, Hergé’s widow. The family’s company Moulinsart SA had aggressively pursued perceived copyright violations against fans and academics, and Rodwell was once known as “one of the most disliked people in European comics amongst fans” – until 2015, when a court found that the copyright to Tintin had belonged to the Castermans since 1942.
Rodwell told Le Monde in September that he believed the artwork should have been offered to the Musée Hergé, near Brussels.
“Hergé’s work belongs to his family but it is also part of Belgian heritage. It should not be sold,” he said at the time. “I’m not saying it was stolen by Casterman. It was just not returned by Casterman.”
A lithograph of Le Lotus Bleu, produced in 1981 and signed by Hergé, also sold at the auction on Thursday for €6,000, twice the estimated value.
Tintin first appeared in a cartoon strip in 1929 and went on to star in 24 books. Hergé died in 1983.