John Terrey set a record in May by paying the most ever for an original American poster. But he's no checkbook-brandishing art maven. The retired electrical engineer paid $16,000 for a stark 1930s Rural Electrification Administration image promoting radio as a wonder technology. And his collection of just two dozen posters reflecting his pet interests, radios and skiing, are on display at his home and his ski condo. "I'm always looking for something to complement my collection of old radios," he says. "I'll pick up almost anything radio-related."
Dealers say Terrey is typical of the booming ranks of poster collectors. Most pursue subjects related to personal passions, more for pleasure than investment. Some seek historic documents that capture the ambience of Left Bank Parisian cafes or 1920s women's wear. Some happily pay thousands for a poster of, say, Palisades Amusement Park to commemorate a first date. The luxuriant graphics of vintage posters lure fans of such artists as Leonetto Cappiello, A.M. Cassandre (Adolphe Mouron), and Alphonse Mucha.
JUST OLD ADS. Poster collecting has proved lucrative in the past two decades, and tighter supply is expected to boost prices. So is this a good time to get involved? "We're not immune to changes in the economy, but through good and bad times, people have seen their investment in posters hold up," says Jack Rennert, president of Poster Auctions International in New York. "And most people are not looking to make a killing."
Experts say original American posters are starting to crack the $15,000 mark. Also in May, another buyer paid $16,000 for a poster of Buffalo Bill. European posters had earlier attained those heights, with works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec routinely exceeding $30,000. And, unlike modern art, art posters have enjoyed steady appreciation since the mid-1980s. Typical is a Chicago World's Fair poster that went for $800 in 1985 yet captured $5,200 at auction last November. And that doesn't include gallery commissions, which rose from 10% to 15% in that span. Lately, Rennert says, his average sale has been about $4,000.
Only recently have posters been accorded much value or respect. After all, they're just old ads, run off by the hundreds or thousands to sell everything from appliances and aperitifs to rail destinations and political candidates. (Movie posters usually are considered a separate genre.) The boldness and visual brilliance that lets posters succeed as ads "has been their albatross," says Swann Galleries President Nicholas Lowry.
Poster-collecting occupies a curious niche. It's far more approachable than fine-art collecting and has taken even longer than photography (BW--Apr. 30) to gain respect. Still, word has spread quickly in recent years, thanks to museum exhibitions and the prominent presence of vintage posters on the sets of TV shows such as Friends and Ricki Lake. Also raising posters' visibility have been such high-profile collectors as cosmetics magnate Leonard Lauder and tennis ace Ivan Lendl, who aims to fill his Connecticut mansion with a complete collection by fin de siecle master Mucha. Rennert, who has been helping him, says Lendl has more than 100 Muchas displayed at home, with spaces designated for the missing few.
Assuming your ambitions--and bankroll--are more modest than Lendl's, how do you get started? First, buy only posters you want to live with. And aim for those by the best artists in the best condition you can afford rather than spreading your cash among lesser works. While proliferating galleries--and Web auction sites--promise vast selections and easy price comparisons, you're better off starting by patronizing reputable dealers. The International Vintage Poster Dealers Assn. (www.ivpda.com) maintains a list of 65 members who abide by the group's ethics code.
When you see or hear about a poster you like, consult catalogs and dealers to learn more about the artist, the item's rarity, and recent sale prices. Take Terrey's methodical approach: A subscriber to Swann's catalogs, he was struck by an image on the cover of a catalog advertising a May 7 auction. Via the Net, he got the three books cited in the catalog description and phoned a couple of galleries in New England to learn more about the artist, Lester Beall (whose accomplishments included redesigning BusinessWeek in the '30s). Terrey learned that the image he liked was the rarest of a set that also included odes to washing machines, running water, and electric lights. In fact, Beall is enough of a cult figure for New York's Roger Williams Hotel to boast that it has the full set of his REA posters on display. Thus armed, Terrey decided to aim for the middle of the $12,000-to-$18,000 catalog estimate and prevailed over a dealer representing a client who owned the other three.
One thorny issue is reproductions--images printed after the initial run, sometimes in a different size, using a different printing technique. As the stock of originals dwindles and prices rise, some dealers and collectors have turned to what are euphemistically called "recreations." Most dealers in originals say reproductions are O.K. if labeled and marketed as such.
VANISHING ART. Collectors should disregard the claims sometimes made for high-priced copies: They employ a printing method parallel to the original, they're part of a numbered edition, or they're authorized by an artist's descendant. None of that helps at resale. And while dealers can usually spot a reproduction masquerading as vintage, new collectors can be misled. The best protection: Go through a reputable dealer, and ask for a dealer-backed certificate of authenticity. It makes no sense to spend several hundred dollars for a copy when vintage posters are still available at that price.
Short-term economic fluctuations aside, there's little reason to expect poster prices to fall. Ad posters are a vanishing art, so the pool of collectible works is shrinking, particularly as museums remove prime items from the market. While that's great for prices, it's also putting collectible posters out of reach for many of the "first-time home buyers with empty walls" who once formed the core of the market, says San Francisco gallery owner and IVPDA President Sarah Stocking. The good news is, unlike Ivan Lendl, you probably don't have 20 rooms to fill. That means you're still in time to enrich your life with what is likely to prove a sound investment. By Gerry Khermouch