By Anna Maria Jakubek
PARIS (Reuters) - Rare original drawings of the Smurfs, blue-skinned cartoon characters created by Belgian artist Peyo, are set to fetch up to 120,000 euros ($167,000) each on Saturday in the first auction of the late artist's work.
The highlight of a sale of 33 full-page Peyo comic strips at the Artcurial auction house on the Champs-Elysees in Paris will be a black-and-white sketch -- "The Smurfs and the Magic Flute."
It is the first time Peyo's family has sold original Smurf artwork, although some drawings given as gifts has been sold, and the sale is drawing interest from enthusiasts worldwide.
"It was a stroke of genius on Peyo's part to have made the Smurfs blue because everyone -- whether they're Chinese or European -- can identify with them," said Eric Leroy, Artcurial's comic expert said.
The Magic Flute drawing was the basis for the cover of Peyo's 1960 "Johan and Peewit" comic, a precursor of the Smurf series in which the diminutive figures, who sport white pants and pointy hats, first appeared before becoming stars in their own right.
Smurfs -- or "Schtroumpfs," as they are called in French -- went on to achieve worldwide fame, appearing in widely syndicated television cartoons, advertising spots and movies.
"The whole world knows the Smurfs from TV, and children think it's an animated show, but the original was a comic strip," said Leroy.
The auction, and a recent exhibition of more than 200 original comic sheets and personal items belonging to Peyo, follows this year's successful release of the 3D movie "The Smurfs," which has grossed more than half a million dollars.
Prices for the signed cartoon panels run from 5,000 euros up to 120,000 euros, not an unusually high price for comic art given that in 2008 Artcurial sold a Tintin comic for around $1 million. Some proceeds will go to UNICEF.
Peyo -- whose real name was Pierre Culliford -- came up with the word "Schtroumpf" over a meal when he forgot the word for salt and asked a friend to pass him the "schtroumpf."
The two started to use "schtroumpf" to replace other words in a playful form of conversation that was to become the basis for the cartoon Smurfs' language.
Conceived for children, the Smurfs were all males, lived in mushroom-like houses in a cooperative community, rode storks for transport and derived names from their trades or personalities, such as Lazy Smurf, Jokey Smurf and Doctor Smurf.
The cartoon prompted its share of controversy this year when French sociologist Antoine Bueno wrote a book alleging that the Smurfs' world represented a totalitarian Communist utopia and their gold-loving villain Gargamel was a caricature of a Jew.
Peyo's son Thierry Culliford defended his father, saying that the late cartoonist was completely apolitical.
Since Peyo's death at age 64 in 1992, Thierry Culliford has led Studio Peyo, which still produces comics under Peyo's name.