Yesterday's Posters, Today's Art

Imagine coming home from work to the frozen flutter of Bette Davis' eyes or King Kong climbing the walls of your living room. These images and more exotic ones can be yours when you collect vintage posters.

Posters of all eras, styles, and themes have become popular collectibles over the past few years. One reason is that nostalgia sells. An old poster advertisement can bring pangs for a brand that has gone the way of youth. Or the sleek lines of a cruise ship ad can carry one back to a honeymoon long past.

Vintage posters are also works of art in their own right. Their vivid colors and bold graphics can enliven a room at a fraction of the cost of a painting. While the creme de la creme can run upwards of $200,000, exemplary pieces range from several hundred to several thousand. And posters are holding their value well. "The art market is in a depression, yet posters are very stable," says Helene Petrovic head of 20th century decorative arts at Christie's East.

Typically, posters produced before World War II are the most valuable. Until photographic offset printing became widespread in the 1930s and '40s, artists painstakingly drew images onto zinc or limestone, a process known as lithography. Jules Cheret, a French artist, is recognized for perfecting color lithography in the late 1800s. The works of Cheret and his compatriots such as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha, and art deco master A.M. Cassandre fetch some of the highest prices today. For example, Mucha's Monaco travel poster sold for $11,000 at a recent auction.

GRATEFUL DEAD. In addition to the artist, condition and scarcity play a part in poster valuation. A poster that has fresh colors and no tears is, of course, worth more than one that is stained or has been restored. Although it's hard to tell how many copies of a poster were originally made, or how many still exist, "we do know that there isn't a large quantity of any type of poster printed before the 1960s, simply because print runs were smaller back then," says George Theofiles, who owns Miscellaneous Man, a poster mail-order business in New Freedom, Pa.

Subject matter and genre, too, are important in determining a poster's worth. As popular tastes change, collectors begin to focus on a

particular category, driving

PRICES UP. Rock 'n' roll posters done in San Francisco in the 1960s--announcing Grateful Dead concerts, for example--are selling smartly now for as much as $2,000 each. "It's probably because baby boomers are approaching middle age and thinking back on the wild days of their youth," says Theofiles.

Movie posters are also hot. Their prices are driven by the popularity of a film or the featured stars. Movie posters "have little relation to graphic interest, and typically there is no artist," says Jack Rennert, president of Poster Auctions International. A recent auction at Christie's garnered $57,200 for a rare King Kong poster. Other categories that seem to be perennial favorites are war posters, art deco and circus posters, and transportation posters of the 1890s to 1940s. Of the latter, a Cycles Gladiator poster, a popular early transportation work, sold for $9,000.

To start collecting, pick a subject that interests you, then study the posters on that topic. A good beginner's book is Tony Fusco's Posters (House of Collectibles; $12.95). You'll also want to haunt auctions. Christie's next movie-poster auction will take place in New York in December; Sotheby's will stage one next September in New York. Poster Auctions International will sell a broader range of posters in New York in May. When it's time to buy, you may get better prices from shows, dealers, or the mail-order market than at auctions. Miscellaneous Man (717 235-4766) advertises a wide variety of vintage posters from $75 to $10,000. A good way to learn about shows--known as paper fairs--and dealers is through Paper Collectors' Marketplace (715 467-2379).

Be aware that some shops sell reproductions alongside authentic old posters--and don't always make the distinction clear. To be absolutely certain about what you're buying, go to a reputable dealer or gallery--and ask lots of questions.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE