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"Red Star Line" by Henri Cassiers, lithograph, 1898.
Photo courtesy of Joern Weigelt, Poster Connection Inc.

Vintage Posters: Powerful Advertising Images

By Victoria Shaw-Williamson

In Europe from the 1880s through the 1930s, many graphic and fine artists were employed as designers of advertising posters. Their task was to produce powerful images that would stop pedestrians in their tracks. These same images have a similar impact on today's poster collectors, who are finding that the competition for the best images is becoming increasingly intense.

International Vintage Poster Fair
The Fall season for poster collectors begins in October with the International Vintage Poster Fair in New York City. Louis Bixenman, a private dealer and collector, first produced the New York fair in 1989. Since then, the event has grown to include fairs in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Atlanta.

Bixenman believes that the primary market for posters today is in the United States. This year, the October fair included a diverse inventory from a large group of European and American dealers. "For every collector there's a different focus, be it design, subject, designer, style or country of origin," he notes.

Bixenman has seen over the years that most of the buyers at the International Vintage Poster Fair are private individuals. However, he has noticed that some are museum curators seeking posters for their graphic art collections.

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Market Attracts Wide Range of Collectors
Nicholas Lowry, the director of the Posters Department at Swann Galleries in New York, believes that the field of graphic design is becoming more widely accepted within the world of fine arts. He notes that major American museums with important graphic design collections include Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Despite this growing acceptance, posters are still accessible to younger buyers who are just beginning to collect art. According to Lowry, "Posters are accessible because the images are meant to have an impact on the viewer in a relatively simple way. A strong image will get your attention and draw you in. posters are also relatively affordable, since there is plenty of material in the $2000 to $3000 range."

Important images by well-known designers will always bring a top price. The November 1999 Travel Poster sale at Swann Galleries had some nice examples of work by the well-known graphic artist A.M. Cassandre. Two ocean liner posters, "Normandie" (1935) and "Statendam" (1928) brought $8050 and $11,500, respectively, including premium.

"Serodent" advertisement from Switzerland, circa 1930.
Photo courtesy of Swan Galleries.

Important Artists Designed Posters
The most important artists in Art Nouveau and Belle Epoque posters include Toulouse-Lautrec, Alfonse Mucha and Jules Cheret. In 1999, Poster Auction International set a record in New York when a very rare Toulouse-Lautrec sold for $250,000. The poster, dating to 1891, was on three sheets, measuring 76 inches high and 48 inches wide, and was the first poster by the artist. The condition and rarity of the piece were the major factors that contributed to this extraordinary result.

Despite the record price for a work by a widely recognized artist, it is still possible to find relatively inexpensive Art Nouveau posters on the market. Decent images by unknown Swiss or French artists circa 1895 to 1900 are in the $300 to $400 range.

Joern Weigelt of PosterConnection holds poster auctions twice a year in San Francisco, while his family holds similar auctions in Germany. He is aware of how difficult it has become to find good material from the late 19th century through the early 20th century. "The scarcity of material is making the market explode. Later and later works are being appreciated today, because few people can afford the top works," he indicates.

Weigelt notes that aviation posters from the late '40s and '50s sell in the $500 to $700 range today, while 10 years ago these same posters would have sold for only $100. The most sought-after posters are ones that advertise major destinations and cities.

"Thirsty Moon Beer" advertisement from Germany, circa 1938.
Photo courtesy of Joern Weigelt, Poster Connection Inc.

Vintage Posters Considered Originals
It's important to keep in mind that vintage posters are originals, and not reproductions. Printed in large formats on inexpensive paper, they were meant to be used as billboards. The vintage posters available today are now backed by linen to provide support.

Vintage posters were not numbered as they were not published to promote an artist. Instead, they were produced in large quantities (in the thousands sometimes) and posted outdoors, pasted to buildings. Not all of them were actually used. Occasionally, a large stash of unused posters will turn up in a basement in Paris.

Most modern advertising images are taken for granted by the public—perhaps they feel deadened by our media-saturated culture. Nonetheless, the market for vintage advertising posters is a vivid source of beauty and inspiration for nostalgic collectors.

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For More Information Find out what your treasures are worth. Find resources for original vintage posters in the U.S. and in Europe.

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