Collectors Still Flock to Classic Vintage Posters

By Lyons, Jessica | Art Business News, April 2001 | Go to article overview
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Collectors Still Flock to Classic Vintage Posters

Lyons, Jessica, Art Business News

When it comes to vintage posters, collectors' interest is anything but dated. In fact, the market for antique posters has risen sharply over the years. According to Butterfield's estimates, vintage posters represent a $20-million to $40-million market worldwide.

"We've seen many posters triple in value over the last two years--they've outdone the stock market by a long shot," said Axelle Gallery consultant Mitch Plotkin.

Indeed, it only takes a trip to Target to find anecdotal evidence that the vintage poster market is booming. Framed antique poster reproductions of Alfonse Mucha's distinctive ladies are almost guaranteed above-the-sofa status.

Elevated price tags prove the point nicely, as well. In a catalog for an upcoming Christie's auction, several 19th-century posters are valued at more than $25,000. A lithograph by Toulouse-Lautrec--in B-minus condition because of fold marks and repaired tears--has a pre-sale estimate between $31,000 and $33,000.

While the number of collectors increases, the number of available posters steadily diminishes. The laws of supply and demand take over and the price tag on vintage posters skyrockets. It's a market Adam Smith would love.

Museum of the Streets

During the late 19th century, colorful advertising posters decorated the once gray streets of Paris. Long before the age of mass media, the posters were the principal means of advertising products, stores, theaters, ballets and local performers. Although they were created by the leading artists of the period, the posters were primarily ads, and as such, they were posted all over the streets to reach as many eyes as possible. Appealing to stuffy art critics and street people alike, this new, contemporary art medium created quite a buzz in the city of light.

Shortly after their arrival, poster collecting became fashionable in Paris, bringing the "museum of the streets," into homes. It was a modern, inexpensive way to decorate--the posters could easily be ripped off outdoor walls and kiosks. Serious collectors hoarded the advertising posters with a vengeance, amassing an average of 500 to 600 posters each. According to poster experts, were it not for these collectors, there would be few left today.

The posters' popularity quickly crossed the Atlantic, and by the end of the 19th century, more than 6,000 poster collectors had set up shop in America.

However, the posters were intended to be temporary and disposable--not permanent artwork. According to most estimates, nearly 99 percent of the original vintage prints have been destroyed by the elements and careless collectors. Only one percent have been preserved, and even fewer are in good condition.

"Existing examples in good condition are extremely rare," explained Keith Tomaszewsky, vice president of [S.sup.2] Art Group. "This accounts for part of their appeal and also for the astronomical prices they often demand."

Younger, "vintage Hollywood" posters face a similar fate. The only existing half-sheet film poster from The Jazz Singer showing Al Jolson in blackface sold for $26,000 at Christie's December 2000 auction. It "was not considered a controversial or racist image in 1927" said Christie's Margaret Barrett, assistant vice president and head of the popular arts department. "But when the film was released, theater owners did not like the image and therefore did not order the film for advertising purposes, because they didn't want people to think that this film was a minstrel show." Once again, rarity brings in big bucks.

Sign of the Times

Depending on the artist's popularity and the poster's condition, vintage posters sell from a couple hundred dollars to nearly half a million. And as it becomes increasingly difficult to find authentic posters in decent condition, the result is a rise in prices of approximately 10 to 15 percent annually, said Jacques-Paul Athias, a specialist in the field of vintage posters.

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