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Collecting Original Vintage Posters

Toulouse-Lautrec, Theatre Aristide Bruant
Toulouse-Lautrec. 
Theatre Aristide Bruant, 1893

Cassandre, A. M. Cote D'Azur, 1931 vintage poster
Cassandre, A. M. 
Cote D'Azur, 1931

 

Koch, Davos
Koch, Walther.
Davos, 1907


Emil Cardinaux, Zermatt, 1908 vintage swiss poster
Swiss poster art is celebrated as much for its beautiful lithography as for its majestic mountains.


Mucha, Bieres de la Muse
Posters by recognized artists, such as Toulouse-Lautrec or Mucha, command higher prices.


Cassandre, Normandie
Ocean liners are one of the most collectible poster categories.


Cappiello, Zeste
Rare posters by Cappiello, like this one for a lemon drink, can bring 10 times the price of more common ones.


vintage olympic poster
Tears, losses, stains, folds and faded color, even if restored later, should figure into the grading of this poster.

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 $25,000 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.

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.

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A Key to Poster Value:The factors that affect price & collectibility in fine art posters

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:

1. 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 movie. Today, silkscreens especially from Switzerland and Japan can be quite spectacular.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. Rarity: Posters were customarily made in runs of 250 to 3000 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, nevermind still exist. And as museums and collectors take a poster out of the market, availability can change dramatically.

6. 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. At International Poster Gallery we attempt to be conservative in our ratings, with a bias towards being more critical rather than less.

7. 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 drymounting 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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