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Jack Rennert
From the Print Edition:
Groucho Marx, Spring 93

Out on the tennis court, the methodical, machinelike precision of Ivan Lendl in his heyday never betrayed his secret passion, antique posters. But his private obsession--you could almost call it an addiction--surfaced when he bought his first Alphonse Mucha. He fell in love with the artist. Since then Lendl has accumulated the largest private collection of Muchas in the world, which covers nearly every square inch of the walls of his home in Connecticut.

Many collectors have followed the same path as Lendl. They buy one poster, either of a particular artist or a specific theme such as wine, and within months they begin to put together unparalleled collections worthy of a top museum. The phenomenon isn't incomprehensible. Created to send a message from a wall or a fence in their specific time and place, these vivid images retain their immediacy and poignancy long after the events they celebrated are only memories hanging on a wall.

Collecting posters allows people to maintain this direct contact with important aspects of their experiences and interests. To begin with, most people buy posters for love. Teenagers in the '60s accumulated stacks of psychedelic posters of rock concerts and personalities; today, the subject may be the environment. Many collect posters that immortalize the circus, the theater and the movies. Some people specialize in posters of bikes, cars, trains or whatever special interests they have. In many cases, the subject of the poster is the decisive factor in acquiring it.

Another aspect has been slowly but persistently gathering momentum in the poster world. From this point of view, the specific product, service or event being advertised has little to do with the decision to buy; the crucial criteria are lasting graphic merit, excellence of design and, often, as a secondary but nonetheless important consideration, the poster's value as an investment. In other words, collectors in this category view posters as art. Clearly, a great majority of us can never hope to own an original Rembrandt or Renoir, but for a fraction of the cost, an art lover can have an original poster by Mucha or Cassandre, or even Toulouse-Lautrec.

The Golden Era of poster creation and collecting came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a boom that resembled the explosion of the art market in the 1980s. When posters were displaced as the principal advertising medium after the Second World War, the market fell into the doldrums. But today posters are once again well established as collectible art, and all signs point to this being a permanent trend.

The worldwide revival of the classic poster artists began in the 1960s, triggered perhaps by the impetus of pop culture posters like psychedelic rock concert notices from San Francisco. Poster exhibitions were arranged in cities such as London, Brussels, Munich and Paris. In Germany a collective project resulted in a monumental three-volume inventory of all posters found in German museums. Monographs on individual artists or on categories of posters appeared. In 1978 the Musée de I'Affiche, the first major museum dedicated to posters, opened in Paris, then closed 12 years later.

The next sure sign of the popularity of classic posters came with their acceptance by the world's great auction houses as marketable items: Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips featured posters in the late 1970s and early '80s, and in 1985 Poster Auctions International in New York became the only auction house to feature posters exclusively. PAI holds sales twice a year, and the average price realized per poster sold has jumped from about $1,700 in its first year to well over $5,000 today.

In the last two decades, posters have solidified their status as a viable financial investment; although they're not as solidly entrenched as real estate or stocks, you can at least appreciate them aesthetically while waiting for them to appreciate financially. And it need not be a long wait: Cassandre's "Etoile du Nord" went from $2,970 in 1985 to $8,250 in 1989, and then to $22,000 in 1991. While such a climb is, of course, exceptional, it is quite common for a good poster to double in value in three or four years.

The evolution of this market has seen trends and shifts in demand. Chéret was an early favorite in the 1960s poster renaissance; in the 1970s there was a slow strengthening of interest in Art Nouveau, which benefited its foremost representative, Mucha, together with Belgium's Privat Livemont and others. Mucha's biggest fans turned out to be the Japanese, who had several exhibitions of his works and acquired many of them for museums as well as private collections.

Since about the mid-1980s, the emphasis apparently has shifted to Art Deco of the decade 1925-35, represented best in the works of A.M. Cassandre, Paul Colin, Charles Loupot and Jean Carlu. Loupot's "Sato" sold in 1988 for $7,700, jumped to $10,450 in 1990 and to $15,400 in 1991--a 100 percent appreciation in three years. And Colin's "SNCF" railway poster increased in value by 63 percent in a single year: from $1,760 in 1988 to $2,860 in 1989.

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