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Superman comic-book receives record-breaking $2.2m bid on eBay... but the seller will be hoping for more

As a pristine copy of Action Comics No 1 goes up for sale online, Michael Cavna discovers why a 10-cent magazine gets wealthy collectors so excited

The Holy Grail of comic-book collectables has just received a record-breaking bid – yet the seller would be none too pleased if that's as high as the offers climb.

Action Comics No 1 – the book that essentially launched the entire superhero industry in 1938 by featuring Superman's debut – received an "actual bid" of nearly $2.2m (£1.3m) yesterday, according to the eBay auction site. The virtual gavel falls today.

The highest price ever paid at auction for a comic is $2,161,100, when another high-quality copy of Action Comics No 1 – widely rumoured to have been stolen from the actor Nicolas Cage before being recovered – was bought by an anonymous buyer in 2011.

Yet the owner of the book now on the block, Darren Adams – a collector who runs the Pristine Comics shop in Washington state – said he paid a seven-figure sum for his issue several years ago, and that he turned down multimillion-dollar offers before going to auction.

"If it stayed at this current [bid] price, I'd be more than happy to buy back the book myself, if I could," Mr Adams told The Washington Post.

The current bid is $2.194m, but Mr Adams said he was hoping for a price well above $3m. "This book is like a museum piece," he said. "It's a freak-of-nature work."

Only a few dozen unrestored copies of Action Comics No 1 – cover price, 10 cents – are known to exist, and perhaps only seven of them are in such good condition that they receive a grade higher than 6.0 from the Certified Guaranty Company, which rates comics on a scale of one to 10.

Mr Adams' copy is graded at 9.0, almost unheard-of for this issue, which hit newsstands in the summer of 1938. And among the known copies, "only two have perfect-white pages" – and his is one of them.

The comic was bought new by a man who kept it in a cedar chest at high altitude in the mountains of West Virginia, where it rested for decades until he died.

"What happens next is kind of cool," Mr Adams said. "This young guy – a collector who's getting going – goes to the estate… and sees this book and sees the pages are incredible. So he constructed himself a similar cedar chest" to store it in.

Mr Adams, 53, was an avid comics reader as a boy, pulled in by the art in early 1970s Batman strips.

By age 11, he started a lawn-mowing business – renting push mowers and getting friends to do the mowing for a cut of the money – and poured much of his profits into buying comic books. Like some latter-day Tom Sawyer, he said he was "already a wheeler-and-dealer".

For years he has been willing to travel the world to buy collectables. He didn't get his hopes up when a seller contacted him several years ago to offer a 1938 Superman, but then he flew to see it in person. "The cover was so bright and vivid," he recalled. "The corners were real sharp. I was very surprised. Then I saw the interior of the book, and I was blown away by the depth of the colour and the suppleness of the page."

Mr Adams had treasured a previous moment when he had touched an Action Comics No 1, but that one was only a 6.5. "I saw one at [San Diego] Comic-Con," Mr Adams said. The online auction house Metropolis let Mr Adams, as a veteran collector, hold it.

"Then my son holds it," Mr Adams recalled, "and I say to him: 'Remember this. You're holding a six.' That's how special it felt. Fast-forward to this moment in time. I'm looking at this book – this might be the best copy in existence. It was a surreal moment."

Some comic fans would never sell a book this rare. But Mr Adams is a businessman, and keeping valuable books in circulation, and making a profit in return, is what he does.

"I actually held it for a few years – I was so excited about this book," he said. "And equally exciting to having a book of this condition is the fact that nobody knew it existed. Most books have a history… but this book was totally off the grid, and nobody knew about it 'til I made it known."

Once Mr Adams decided to sell, his next step was to decide how. Metropolis and Heritage Auctions have handled record-breaking vintage comic books. Yet Mr Adams believed eBay could deliver a wider international audience. "I've done business with the major auction houses," he said. "I didn't want to simply stick with the comics crowd [of buyers]. I wanted to get a worldwide audience for this book… And nobody has a bigger reach than eBay."

The modern value of the comic contrasts sharply with the money paid to the teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who created Superman in the 1930s. They sold the rights for just $130 to Detective Comics – now known as DC.

Mr Adams has decided to give a portion of the sale proceeds to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, a charity for spinal-cord injury which honours the 1970s movie Superman, Christopher Reeve.

© Washington Post