Biography - Later Years
Some twenty years passed. Johnny retired from active work in 1965. To celebrate, he and his wife visited Hawaii. On their return from the islands, Johnny was at loose ends and became very restless because of his inactivity.
One day, Edna saw Johnny in the garage going over some of the Disney artwork; he was showing and giving away some cels to a friend of his son, John Orin. As she watched, she thought that Johnny would certainly be kept busy if he ever got down to doing something with them. For years he had talked about doing it someday. He wanted to have an art exhibit at a museum one day for other people to enjoy. So, with repeated encouragement, Johnny got started framing the artwork.
A few framed pieces already hung in their home, but Johnny never made a concentrated effort about the remaining artwork. So a few frames were bought to begin. Being on a limited budget with only Social Security and a small savings, Johnny would buy twelve assorted frames each month, paying for them before the next month’s purchase.
That began Johnny’s work on the salvaged pieces. He used an old-fashioned paper cutter and razor blade to cut mattes. He hand-striped every matte with a French matte design, using a simple felt-tipped pen. He worked long hours daily in the kitchen near a sunny corner window. He had a lot of patience and he had no pressing deadline pushing him. The first thing he had to do was to remove the talc he had so carefully dusted on the cels to prevent them from sticking together. Needless to say, this was a very painstaking operation. To do it, he used a Q-tip and the finest camelhair brushes.
Johnny worked hard on those pictures initially doing all the work himself, feeling his way along. He systematically inventoried, catalogued, matted, framed and labeled each piece of artwork. He insisted on saving the entire cel regardless of its condition when he could. Some of the cels had been in questionable condition when he got them from the studio. For over twenty years after he retired, Johnny was occupied with these cels. He established a regular pattern of work. The most important thing was that he thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing. He felt happy about it, too. He was doing what he liked to do and keeping busy.
As the pictures were completed, they were carefully boxed and stored in the house and not the garage. That is, until the back bedroom looked more like a storage room with boxes stacked everywhere. He finally had to put in steel shelving to place the finished work on so he could walk around the room. The bedroom also contained materials for doing the work such as matte boards, labels and envelopes of unfinished cels, carefully indexed.
Johnny, now in his eighties, needed help with the project. His son, along with a close friend, continued to organize and refine labeling information, indexing and a chronological storage of the art. At the same time, archival quality transparencies were taken of each piece by Jacqueline Darakjy and her partner, Henry Schwartze. Weekends, the young men came to do the cataloging. Johnny continued his matting and striping. He progressed in the techniques, sometimes using circles or triangles for his backgrounds when there wasn’t a studio original to couple with a cel. He was always innovative in his matting and framing.
Johnny’s health began to fail around 1983, aggravated by a bad viral infection. He also became emotionally upset when it was decided that he must do something with the pictures he had completed so far. The finished products should have been put into storage, eliminating some of the bedroom clutter. But that was inconvenient when it was necessary to have the material easily available for reference.
So it was decided that there would be an auction. Christie’s in New York was chosen. It was hoped the auction would be a means to call attention to the world that this animation art was a true American fine art form. That was really Johnny’s dream. It was this belief that sustained him while the auction preparations were being made. He had always wanted to have an exhibition for public viewing when the preservation work on the pictures was finished. So, he was pleased and reassured by keeping enough of the artwork back for this purpose when a more opportune time would present itself.
The very thought of turning over his pictures to others at an auction did not help Johnny very much in his recovery from physical problems. He felt the pictures were a part of him – which they were. He had put so much of himself into this work for such a long time.
Once, when they were readying the pictures for Christie’s, four had to be resealed with a new backing material. When it came time to ship them, they were nowhere to be found. Until pressured, Johnny said nothing. When he learned they were already committed for the auction, he produced them. He had hidden them away because he just didn’t want to let them go.
The auction at Christie’s was scheduled for December 8, 1984. But a bombshell exploded on the Basmajians. Disney filed suit to stop the auction and took Johnny to court. He was served notice only four days before the auction was to be held. The hearing was held in the United States District Court, Southern District of New York, Robert L. Carter presiding. Disney charged that the artwork was the property of the studio and that it had not been given to the Basmajians. Several studio employees and executives appeared to testify. Johnny’s health had not permitted him to go to New York for the auction or the hearing. His son took his place.
It was shown by the Basmajians that Disney Studios had been aware of Johnny’s collection since at least 1970. They also had been contacted by Christie’s early in July, 1984, regarding a charity benefit sponsored by both Christie’s and Disney. The Basmajian collection would have been featured.
Prior to that, his son, John Orin, had taken some of the artwork to the Disney Studios seeking to verify their origin. This meeting was in 1983 with the studio archivist and some other studio representatives. Later, he desired to know if Disney would be interested in publishing a book using the art pieces. During all this time, no one ever suggested a legal battle.
It was pointed out and confirmed by the studio members at the hearing that when Johnny was employed there, a conservative estimate of “some 20 million pieces of artwork, cels, sketches, etc. were completed in connection with the Disney short subjects and feature films.” In actuality, the number is probably closer to 160 million. Only 10% of this material was considered important. Some of the material was used again and an authorized vendor, Courvoisier Galleries, sold some. Disney’s archivist from 1970 testified that Disney had some fifty cels from this time period in its possession.
The judge’s summary concluded “since only fifty cels remained in the studio morgue out of a possible 10% that had monetary value to the studio, it was clear to him that the studio had not placed great value on most of this kind of material. It was also certain that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the 10% were considered of sufficient value to sell to the public. But this would leave millions of pieces, cels, sketches, etc., unaccounted for. The declared purported carefully policy of preservation by the studio was simply non-existent.”
It was also ruled that “where a copyright owner sells or transfers a particular copy of his copyright work, he divests himself of the exclusive right in that copy and the right to sell passes to the transferee.”
In his final remarks, the judge further noted, “Basmajian is now 85 years old. He is a resident of California. Plaintiff filed this action on Monday, December 3. The matter was set down for hearing on December 6 and 7. Basmajian submitted an affidavit. In view of the time pressures created by plaintiff instituting suit so close to the date of the auction, they could hardly expect an 85 year old man who, the court is advised, is somewhat infirm to be present in New York on December 6 and 7 in person. Had plaintiff filed this action earlier, perhaps Basmajian could come to New York in person or his testimony could have been preserved in a deposition. Under the circumstances, the affidavit must be accepted.” The conclusion of the case established “Basmajian’s lawful possession and the lack of irreparable injury also defeat Disney’s claim for a preliminary injunction based on state law….” So, the auction went on as scheduled.
Johnny felt vindicated. Although urged by his legal counsel, he was not interested in filing a slander and libel suit against the studio. He was old and suffering from a serious heart problem. His family abided by his decision.
John Basmajian died on January 22, 1989 at home with his entire family present.