by Barry Heisler
to the efforts of auction houses like New York's Swann Galleries
and organizations such as The International Fine Posters Fair,
the visibility and prestige of fine posters has increased dramatically
in the last decade. Nowadays, even the largest and most traditional
auction houses host major fine poster sales annually, which regularly
feature rare lots in excess of $10,000. Not bad for a colorful
sheet of paper, originally used to promote an opera, sporting
event, faraway destination, or household product.
growing popularity of posters as a collecting area is really no
surprise, though. Often less expensive than more rarefied works
of art, such as fine paintings, prints, or drawings, framed fine
posters can be just as compelling, both visually and conceptually.
There are also scores of poster genres for collectors to explore--the
fine posters advertising category is truly vast. In fact, most
enthusiasts are forced to focus their energies and funds in one
particular area. So, where should resellers be investing their
dollars now in the hopes of turning a profit later? Here we look
at three of the primary fields popular with collectors within
the advertising category: travel and transportation, products,
When collectors and resellers discuss travel posters, they usually
refer to vintage originals from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries,
produced by resorts and tourism bureaus of various countries to
advertise the latest travel destinations. Within this broad category,
a few subgenres deserve special attention: American travel, European
travel, and Hawaiian and Polynesian travel. Moreover, the most
popular travel posters in this category combine a period look
with motifs associated with a location. Take 1920s and 1930s Hawaiian
posters, featuring stylized depictions of hula girls, palm trees,
and oceans views, or Swiss Alps promos, featuring red-cheeked
to Nicho Lowry, posters specialist for Swann Galleries, charming
vistas alone don't necessarily make a poster valuable. Truly exceptional
examples combine aesthetic appeal, historical relevance, and compelling
subject matter. Lowry cited a 1925 English railway and golf poster
from St. Andrews, the oldest golf course in Scotland. As it captures
both the romance of a popular sport and famous railway, the piece
sold for $12,000, well above its hefty presale estimate of $2,000
to $3,000. Lowry also pointed to a 1952 Cuban travel poster, featuring
a dramatic beach scene within the contours of a female bather.
Though visually special, the poster's historical significance
justified its high final price. It fetched $1,840 against an estimate
of $600 to $900.
posters, not surprisingly, celebrate the world's many modes of
transport, from airplanes, trains, and ocean liners to zeppelins,
automobiles, and bicycles. Resellers should be on the lookout
for examples that promote new technology and capture a spirit
of innovation. This is especially true in the area of aviation
and automobile posters, where the subjects can vary tremendously
from one decade to another, as technology advances.
special interest to many American collectors are the automobile
touring posters of the 1930s and later. These wonderful examples
of Americana urged travelers to visit Chicago and then travel
down Route 66 through the Southwest into California. As the major
population centers were still in the East, many of these posters
promoted travel to the South and West. A fine example is Leslie
Ragan's 1939 See America poster, which sold at Swann's November
travel poster auction for $6,900.
this field, pieces by certain artists, especially Adolph Mourand-Cassandre,
are particularly valuable. Cassandre's Normandie poster fetched
$8,050 at Swann's November auction. Other highly collectible names
in the travel and transportation area are Roger Broders, Leslie
Ragan, and Jules Cheret. Remember, the more famous the artist,
the greater the chances of his or her work having been reprinted.
This is one reason to work with a reputable vendor, especially
until you have learned how to identify reproductions.
Product Posters Vivid, evocative, and stylish, vintage advertising
posters have been a strong collecting area for nearly a century.
Beginning in the late 19th century, publishers and advertisers
realized the impact that catchy posters could have on selling
such varied products as soaps, perfumes, cigars and cigarettes,
cars, bicycles, and even milk. Typically, the most popular examples
feature images from famous artists of the period, such as Henri
de Toulouse-Lautrec, Theophile Steinlen, and Alphonse Mucha.
by artists of this caliber have sold for $20,000 to $30,000 or
more, but one can find examples of their work valued at far less.
These are the posters for less glamorous products or sought-after
examples that are imperfect or damaged. Also remember that these
prints were handprinted from a stone; thus, there are often variants.
Moreover, some collectors seek out proof copies or images before
the final lettering is applied over the design. These factors
can either add or detract from a product poster's value and desirability.
Here are some examples:
Lait pur de la Vingeanne (milk), 1894, a nearly finished version
lacking the text over the design, sold at Sotheby's London last
December 9, for $7,500. Interestingly enough, Mucha's famous art
nouveau Job cigarette papers poster, 1897, has sold much more
modestly, with a fairly consistent hammer price of $1,500 to $2,000
in New York, London, and San Francisco.
advertising magazines, typically featuring the cover image of
a special issue, are also a wise buy. One of Maxfield Parrish's
lush, romantic posters for the August 1897 "Midsummer Holiday"
issue of The Century magazine sold at Sotheby's New York for $3,750
in '96 and $4,500 in '97. Edward Penfield's vibrant covers for
Harper's magazine are also a wise investment. Take his Christmas
cover from 1898, which realized $1,610 at Poster Auctions International
If you have ever seen a beautiful, wildly colored old circus poster
or prize fight announcement, you know how appealing nostalgic
event posters can be. In this category, the product being promoted
is typically an opera, world's fair, sporting event (prize fight
or soccer match), rock concert, circus, or even an ice show.
a greater extent than travel and product advertising, value is
usually determined by the importance of the poster's event. Hence,
the poster's subjects are often historically or culturally significant.
In fact, a poster's cultural and historical relevance usually
informs its value more than the stature of the artist that produced
classic example is Arnold Skolnick's world-renowned Woodstock
Music and Art Festival poster, featuring a cartoon-like bird perched
on the frets of a guitar. Today, the original version of this
poster can be found at a few online auctions with prices ranging
from $220 to $500--a value based purely on the significance of
the event, not a track record of values established for the artist.
Skolnick's Woodstock poster also garners higher values than many
modern events posters because Woodstock was a one-time, seminal
event, not a recurring festival.
As for opera and rock posters, style is critical to value. For
instance, late 19th century European opera posters were created
by individuals from both commercial and fine arts backgrounds,
who became known collectively for a visual style of their own.
Noteworthy in this arena are Mucha and Cheret. The latter's Theatre
de l'Opera of 1897 sold last year at Poster Auctions International
for $5,750. The majority of these sheets can be found for $1,500
each or less. Similarly, psychedelic rock posters of the late
1960s, while produced by a disparate group of artists, share a
distinctive style. In both traditions, the artists were breaking
new ground, collectively creating a new style and vision, critiquing
and prompting one another in their works.
Traditionally, rock posters (printed in first editions of 3,000)
have been collected as they were released. As a result, subsequent
editions have been produced for most, which are less valuable
than the first editions. Also, many rock posters, especially late
'60s psychedelic posters, promoting the concerts of the Grateful
Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Quick Silver Messenger Service,
and many others, have been reprinted. In fact, most rock posters
online are reprints. If you looking for "fine" rock posters online,
make sure you can authenticate the date and edition of the poster
you are considering.
In the fine rock poster realm, psychedelic posters still command
the highest prices. In this area, many factors determine value,
including the stylistic merit of the design, importance of the
band to the psychedelic movement, popularity of the venue, and
notoriety of the artist. For instance, a Moby Grape poster from
the Avalon Ballroom in 1967 sold a few years ago at Sotheby's
in London for nearly $6,000. Most examples by the rock poster
genre's greats, such as Stanley Mouse and Victor Moscoso, bring
between $500 and $1,000.
World's Fair, Olympic, and music festival sheets is another popular
avenue, in part due to their international focus. The poster for
the 1964 New York World's Fair is one of the most popular fair
announcements. As for Olympic sheets, collectors regularly seek
out posters from the Munich (1972), Los Angeles (1984), and Seoul,
South Korea (1988) games. In the music festival category, posters
from the New Orleans Jazz Festival and Aspen Music Festival are
high on collectors' lists. In all three categories, the more significant
the artist, the more valuable the poster. Take David Hockney's
Munich Olympics poster, which sells regularly for $2,500. Since
these prestigious commissions are seen internationally, being
chosen to create the poster for a given year is a tremendous honor.
Thus, there are more examples by fine artists that are published
in smaller, finer editions, and sold initially at higher prices.
Average cost for one of these festival posters can start at $1,000
and go up from there.
version of advertising posters likely would be Hollywood film
posters. Like their century-old counterparts, they are made with
the most advanced technology available. Photographic offset printing,
laser printing, and lenticular processes have replaced the hand-drawn
methods of 1900. But while prints from 1900 might have been produced
in editions from 500 to 1,000 tops, a run of Hollywood posters
rarely numbers fewer than 10,000. Remember: Whatever you collect,
rarity may have the greatest effect on future value.
be careful that what you are buying is not a reprint. At the moment,
many reprinted vintage posters can be found at online auction
sites, for very low prices. To discern the newer reprints, you
need to learn the original size of the image and sheet, and be
sure that these correspond to what you are considering. Make sure
that the paper type is correct and that the poster has the proper
publishers noted along the margin, bottom, or sides. Many reprints
add the details of the new publisher in the margin along with
the original, so this is good to check. Finally, the best way
to protect yourself is to buy from reputable sources that offer
a fair return policy.
Finally, pay attention to the edition size, purchase the first
printing when possible, buy pieces in the best condition you can
afford, and when choosing between two different pieces think about
the long-term significance of the subject and the artist.
Heisler serves as the head of AuctionWatch.com's fine arts appraisers
staff and has nearly 20 years of experience in the art world.