Fine Posters

Fine Posters
by Barry Heisler

Thanks 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.

The 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, and events.

Travel Posters 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 skiers.

According 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.

Transportation 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.

Of 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.

In 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 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.

Posters 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:

Steinlen's 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.

Posters 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 in 1999.

The Main Event 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.

To 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 it.

A 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.

Event Posters 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.

Collecting 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.

Today's 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.

Also, 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.

Barry Heisler serves as the head of's fine arts appraisers staff and has nearly 20 years of experience in the art world.


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