Collecting Vintage Posters

Whilst many people dream of one day owning a piece of fine art, very few ever see this dream materialised on their mantelpiece. Read our article on vintage poster collection.


Whilst many people dream of one day owning a piece of fine art, very few ever see this dream materialised on their mantelpiece. On the other hand, almost everyone grew up surrounded by posters, either on their bedroom walls or adorning the streets around them. Vintage posters represent a kind of graphic art which was designed for mass consumption; they were not made to be framed in museums but to advertise products and events, knowing that they could be rained on, torn down or covered up.

In recent years, there has been a new wave of interest in collecting posters. Many collectors are motivated by the nostalgia that these posters produce, others by the bold and radical artistic design they embody. Vintage posters represent an affordable art market which captures a unique time and place, from the Shell poster campaign commissioned in the 1930s around the theme ‘People prefer Shell’ to iconic Hollywood film posters like Casablanca. Poster styles differ according to periods and the country they originate from, starting the with Art Nouveau posters in the late 1800s, to the Art Deco movement in the 1920s and 1930s, to the classical Hollywood sirens of the 1950s and the psychedelic music posters of the 1960s. The variety of posters available means that posters can be bought for prices as low as £50 to £300. Similarly, their success has led to many high-profile auctions, including the 2009 sale of the original Dracula poster which was sold for $310,770.

The poster market emerged in France in the late 19th century as the burgeoning print technology allowed for more creative and experimental forms of typography and pictures to emerge. The French artist Jules Chéret is credited with creating the poster market, using a lithographic colour printer to reproduce his graphic designs quickly and with a high quality of colour that had never been seen before. By the dawn of the 20th century, the Western world was saturated with images and posters filled cities and towns across Europe and America. The increasing commercialisation of products, brands and celebrities contributed to this new world of posters and advertising. Posters became increasingly linked with ideals of leisure such as skiing, golf, motor racing, holidays, cinema and aeroplanes.

There are four key factors which affect the value of a vintage poster regardless of whether it is a Hollywood film poster or an Art Nouveau original. Firstly, the artist. Although many iconic posters were designed by anonymous artists, many were produced by distinguished artists and designers. Prints by Jules Cheret, the father of the modern art poster, always sell very well. Likewise, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s famous posters have been sold for significant sums; in 1999, his iconic poster of the Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris was sold for $241,500. Researching an artist’s significance can help to determine a poster’s value, for example, the Art Deco designer A. M Cassandre was the first graphic designer to be given an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937 and his posters continue to increase in value. Secondly, the subject matter is critical to the value of a poster. As with any visual art, certain images sell better than others. Historically, commercial and decorative images sell best at auction but there is an increased value associated with any form of cultural nostalgia, for example, a 1997 movie poster for the Titanic signed by Leonardo DiCaprio was worth $50 but was sold for $1500.

Thirdly (and most importantly) the rarity of a poster significantly affects its price. When considering purchasing a film poster check whether it contains a number like R56 on its back or bottom corner. The number indicates that the poster is an official reissue rather than an original i.e. R56 indicates that the poster was reprinted in 1956. Although reissued posters can still be valuable, their price is significantly decreased in comparison to an original poster. Similarly, certain types of poster are rarer than others. Early lithographic posters (depending on the cache) can be very valuable, whereas it is estimated that there are over 20 million WWII posters. Finally, the condition of a poster is a good indicator of its price and can be determined by examining the crispness of printing and the strength of the colours. Experts advise that you check whether a poster has any damage (such as stains or tears) and whether the poster has been painted over or altered. Posters are graded on an A-F condition scale and prices reflect this grade.

By Frances Ketteman

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