Collecting Original Vintage Posters

by Jim Lapides
Posted September 2013

In 1963, during a renovation of the offices of a Parisian literary journal, workmen found hundreds of Toulouse-Lautrec posters rolled up under the floorboards. The ones in the best condition could be bought for a few hundred dollars. Even in the 1970s, one dealer had 100 copies of Lautrec's Divan Japonais, which he sold for $800 each.

Today, these posters sell for $40,000 and more. In 1989, Toulouse-Lautrec's 3-sheet Moulin Rouge sold for $220,000, at the time, the highest price ever paid for a fine art poster at auction. If this masterpiece were available today, it might bring two to four times that amount.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec,
Moulin Rouge, 1891. Lautrec’s first poster elevated the status of the
poster to an important art form
the day it was printed. It sold a few years ago for $374,500.

Jules Cheret, Vin Mariani, 1894.
Known as the father of the poster, Jules Cheret’s beautiful “Cherettes” hawked every product from cocaine-laced tonic to bicycles in nearly 1,000 posters and created a poster craze that lasted through the Gay Nineties.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec,
Divan Japonais, 1893. Lautrec’s poster for the Parisian cabaret features a haughty portrait of his favorite dancer Jane Avril in the audience with the critic Edouard Dujardin and Yvette Guilbert on stage. Ever mischievous, Lautrec omitted the singer’s head as she had complained that the artist had previously not been flattering to her.

When the market for vintage advertising posters emerged in the late 1970s, much of the attention focused on French artists like Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha and Jules Cheret. Posters from these artists, as well as from those of the Art Deco period, notably Cassandre and Fix-Masseau, brought the highest prices. As the market has matured, however, it has also broadened. Scholarship and museum shows afford new discoveries every year. Italian, Swiss, Russian, Dutch, German and British posters have developed into specialties with prices that have risen steadily in the last decade. The market has also strengthened for many category niches such as travel posters, Olympics, and war and propaganda. Today, virtually every poster style and period can be found, with good images that can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands.

A brief history of the poster. Although lithography was invented in 1798, it was at first too slow and expensive for poster production. Most posters were woodblocks or metal engravings with little color or design. This all changed with Jules Cheret's "three stone lithographic process," a breakthrough which allowed artists to achieve every color in the rainbow with as little as three stones—usually red, yellow and blue—printed in careful registration.

Although the process was difficult, the result was a remarkable intensity of color and texture, with sublime transparencies and nuances impossible in other media (even to this day). This ability to combine word and image in such an attractive and economical format finally made the lithographic poster a powerful innovation. Starting in the 1870s in Paris, it became the dominant means of mass communication in the rapidly growing cities of Europe and America. The streets of Paris, Milan and Berlin were quickly transformed into the "art gallery of the street," and ushered in the modern age of advertising.

During the 1890s, called the "Belle Époque" in France, a poster craze came into full bloom. In 1891, Toulouse-Lautrec's first poster, Moulin Rouge, elevated the status of the poster to fine art. French poster exhibitions, magazines and dealers proliferated, satisfying the public's love affair with the poster. Early in the decade, the pioneering Parisian dealer Sagot listed 2,200 different posters in his sales catalog!

Jules Chéret showing his work
to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Alphonse Mucha, Monaco-Monte Carlo, 1897. Alphonse Mucha transforms a travel poster for the French Riviera into a flowing dreamscape complete with a beautiful goddess, adorned with a fantastical halo of flowers, vines and silver stars. It is considered one of the most beautiful examples of the art of lithography in its golden outburst of the 1890s.

Leonetto Cappiello, Bitter Campari, 1921. A playful pierrot and an orange peel symbolize the pleasure of drinking Campari in this timeless image. The artist’s philosophy was succinct and brilliantly revealed in more than 700 posters: “Surprise is the essence of modern advertising;
without it, it is nothing.”

In 1894, Alphonse Mucha, a Czech working in Paris, created the first masterpiece of Art Nouveau poster design. The flowery, ornate style was born practically overnight when Mucha was pressed to produce a poster for Sarah Bernhardt, the brilliant actress who had taken Paris by storm. Bearing multiple influences, including the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Byzantine art, this style was to dominate the Parisian scene for the next ten years and to become the major international decorative art movement up until World War I.

The poster slowly took hold in other countries in the 1880s, but quickened during the Belle Époque. In each country, the poster came to the fore to celebrate the society's unique cultural institutions. In France, the cult of the café (including absinthe and other alcoholic products) was omnipresent; in Italy, the opera and fashion; in Spain, the bullfight and festivals; in Holland, literature and products for the home; in Germany, trade fairs and magazines; in Britain and America, literary journals and the circus.

The first poster shows were held in Great Britain and Italy in 1894, Germany in 1896, and Russia in 1897. The most important poster show ever, to many observers, was held in Reims, France, in 1896 and featured an incredibly comprehensive 1,690 posters arranged by country.

Despite cross-pollination, distinctive national styles became more apparent as the Belle Époque progressed. Dutch posters were marked by restraint and orderliness; Italian posters by their drama and grand scale; German posters for their directness and medievalism. The all-powerful influence of France had found a counterbalance.

A.M. Cassandre, Etoile du Nord, 1927. With this abstract, streamlined poster, Cassandre burst onto the poster scene as the leader of a new Machine Age-style now known as Art Deco.

Walter Thomas, Cunard to Boston, 1925. This towering Art Deco poster promoted improved transatlantic service during the tourism boom following WWI.

Leopoldo Metlicovitz, Madama Butterfly, 1904. Metlicovitz created this poster tour de force for his good friend Puccini’s opera that opened at La Scala in February, 1904.

Art Nouveau continued after the turn of the century, although it lost much of its dynamism through sheer imitation and repetition. The death of Toulouse-Lautrec in 1901 and the abandonment of poster art by Mucha and Cheret (who both turned to painting) left a void in France in the new century. The void was filled by a young Italian caricaturist named Leonetto Cappiello, who arrived in Paris in 1898.

Strongly influenced by Cheret and Toulouse-Lautrec, Cappiello rejected the fussy detail of Art Nouveau. Instead, he focused on creating one simple image, often humorous or bizarre, which would immediately capture the viewer's attention and imagination on a busy boulevard. His 1906 Maurin Quina absinthe poster, a mischievous green devil on a black background with simple block lettering, marked the maturation of a style that would dominate Parisian poster art until Cassandre's first Art Deco poster in 1923. This ability to create a brand identity established Cappiello as the father of modern advertising.

A key to poster value. Originally conceived as a concise and catchy advertising medium (albeit ephemeral), posters today adorn the walls of homes, museums and corporate offices as treasured works of art. Private and public collectors around the world prize them for their beauty and historical significance, and decorators use them to bring larger-than-life color and interest to a room. In contrast to most art, fine posters have shown a reliable appreciation in value over the decades.

James Montgomery Flagg, I Want You, 1917. Flagg’s self-portrait as a forceful Uncle Sam became the most famous American poster of all time. Uncle Sam’s riveting stare was dubbed by one observer as "mobilization by shame." It was so effective the poster was reused in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Rene Gruau, Relax, 1954. This charming poster simply and elegantly captures the carefree life on a postwar cruise ship. Chargeurs Reunis, one of the oldest lines still in existence, began in 1872 to serve French West Africa, Brazil and later, French Indochina. Fashion illustrator Gruau’s image of an Audrey Hepburn-like beauty, dozing in the sun onboard, is a classic of travel poster art.

Donald Brun, Zwicky, 1950. The Baby Boom era ushered in a brightly colored and whimsical style that became the dominant look of consumer advertising. In the early 1950s, Swiss artists Donal Brun and Herbert Leupin pioneered a more playful, child-like style. Brun’s poster of a cat looking at a yarn poster—featuring a cat—is a classic.

How does one determine the value of original vintage posters? As with fine art or collectibles such as stamps or coins, the task is not always simple. Here are some guidelines:

Printing Method: Most fine art posters from the 1880s through the 1930s were printed using the difficult and now highly valued process of stone lithography in which: 1) each color is hand drawn or painted onto a separate slab of porous stone, 2) the design is "fixed" on the stone with acid, 3) fresh ink is applied to the stone and absorbed in the fixed areas, 4) the ink is pressed onto the paper through pressure to transfer the image, and 5) after drying, the process is repeated with other stones for the other colors—typically a stone for yellow, red, blue and black. The vibrancy of color and texture achieved in stone lithography is unsurpassed to this day.

After World War II, stone lithography was replaced by the photo offset and silkscreen processes. Typically, these mechanical methods are less highly valued, although offset or silkscreened posters can still command high prices if they are rare, were created by a highly recognized artist, or advertise a famous product. Today, silkscreens, especially from Switzerland and Japan, can be quite spectacular.

Originality: To be valuable, a poster must be a design created originally as a poster by the artist and be an example from the original printing. Usually only one run of a poster was made, as lithographic stones used to create it were expensive and had to be ground down for use on the next job. Except for some authorized additional editions, later reproductions normally have little or no value to collectors.

Artistic Achievement: Posters by recognized artists and graphic designers normally have a higher value. Toulouse-Lautrec's great posters legitimized the medium as a form of fine art and attracted other talented artists to the field. Today, the list of so-called "notable" artists has greatly expanded as collectors have become exposed to specialized areas of collecting through the media, books and exhibitions.

Subject: Demand can vary dramatically for different subjects. Typically, ocean liners, automobiles and skiing are high-demand subjects, while posters for laundry soap or peas have less intrinsic appeal to most people.

Subject appeal, however, can change dramatically. For example, there was new interest in the cigar poster in the late '90s, while interest in cigarette advertising declined.

Rarity: Posters were customarily made in runs of 250 to 3,000 for posting on walls or poster kiosks. (War posters often had runs over 10,000 or even 100,000.) Those that were posted normally did not survive, so we are left with those that were saved by artists, collectors, clients or museums, or were left over in a printer's warehouse. The number of surviving posters varies tremendously by artist, country, client and printer. Rare posters of quality attract more interest, and may therefore sell for a considerably higher price.

Rarity can be difficult to determine, as no one generally knows how many of an image were printed, never mind still exist. And as museums and collectors take a poster out of the market, availability can change dramatically.

Condition: Condition is a corollary of rarity—when a poster is rare, collectors often will consider it even in poor condition. Posters are graded from A to D based on their condition before restoration. In some instances, condition can make the difference of thousands of dollars in price. Condition ratings are subjective and vary due to the knowledge, skill and standards of the assessor.

Conservation: Today, most posters are mounted on canvas or rice paper (Japon) using conservation methods. Often, touch-up restoration is done with watercolor pencils and is reversible. Non-conservation techniques such as dry mounting or non-reversible touch-up can reduce the value of a poster, as the poster's life is shortened or its originality compromised.

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A native of New Haven, Conn., Jim Lapides studied art history at Yale University and has been collecting original vintage posters for 25 years. In 1994, he opened International Poster Gallery on Newbury Street in Boston, which has established itself as one of the world’s leading galleries specializing in vintage poster art. The gallery’s website, www.internationalposter.com, features more than 5,000 fine posters from around the globe. 

 

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