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Posters

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

(continued from page 2)

Judging a poster differs markedly from judging a painting. For one thing, you don't need to feel intimidated if it doesn't appeal to you at once, and you don't have to run to libraries to find out why you should appreciate the work or to discover what the artist had in mind. The one and only function of a poster is to appeal to you and engage your interest; therefore, any poster which captures your attention is a good poster, and you can reject those that fail to do so--with a clear conscience.

To be sure, there is something called an "art poster," which most of the time turns out to be artwork by a professional painter that is being used as a poster--usually for an exhibition at an art gallery or museum--simply by being reproduced with text added. But this kind of poster is aimed at a specialized audience, predisposed to appreciate the artwork used. To qualify as a true poster, the design must be conceived as such from the start, with the intent to deliver the commercial message forcefully and effectively to its designated audience.

Nonetheless, the single most important criterion in determining the value of a poster is the identity of its creator; the top posterists command the highest prices at auctions and galleries. Yet there is a caveat here. If you consider that all poster artists are fine artists, not all artists are fine poster artists. On the other hand, it is also good to bear in mind that this is the only field of art in which many quite readily marketable works are unsigned or have unrecognizable initials or illegible signatures. Most of the very best circus posters, for example, are anonymous, yet there is a steady market for them.

The next essential element in the value of a poster is whether or not it is original. The term "original poster" seems incongruous, since the very purpose of posters is to shout messages from every corner, and the number of copies printed usually runs in the thousands. Here, however, "original" means the original press run, which was meant to go on billboards and be highlighted in display spaces. Reproductions printed later purely for marketing purposes are generally valueless.

Curiously, the number of copies printed in the first press run does not necessarily relate to rarity or value as a collectible. The more important factor is how many copies were preserved at the time of printing, and that depends on many other considerations. There are posters for specific 1890s music hall shows that were printed in editions of perhaps a couple of hundred copies--produced for posting in only a few locations in the city and replaced with new ones in a few days. Yet specimens are still circulated among collectors, as this happened during a time of poster-collecting mania, so printers made it a habit to print more than the client ordered, and the overruns were sold through print dealers at two or three francs in France, and about 15 to 50 cents in the United States.

On the other hand, between the two World Wars, there was virtually no interest in poster collecting, hence the designs from that era are often extremely rare or totally unavailable, regardless of how big the original press run may have been. As an example, research shows that Cassandre's famous 1935 "Normandie," printed with different texts, must have had a total press run of at least 20,000 copies; yet this poster is hard to find, and a specimen in excellent condition recently sold at auction for $15,000.

Looking deeper, we find that poster buyers appear to prefer upbeat, lively scenes, and this, too, affects a poster's value. A cheerful poster, like Toulouse-Lautrec's "Jane Avril" in performance, averages five to ten times the market value of the same artist's equally rare, downbeat design for "Aud Pied de I'Echafaud," showing the execution of a criminal (price range in PAI's sales over the last seven years: "Jane Avril," $28,600-$36,000; "Au Pied," $2,860--$4,950). So the appeal and desirability of a given artist's work is also an important consideration.

Another criterion is the general condition of the poster. Since most posters were never meant to last more than a few weeks, were usually printed on flimsy paper, and even the copies stashed away by collectors were rarely treated with the care given to artwork, one cannot expect totally perfect specimens--in fact, too perfect a copy of a 100-year-old poster might make you justifiably suspicious that you're being sold a reprint. However, a condition in which there is noticeable paper loss or fading of colors will negatively affect the market potential of a poster. Today most collectors have their posters linen-backed, to prevent further deterioration and make the work easier to handle, and nearly all the posters sold at commercial auction are linen-backed.

In the end, the value of any poster in any period depends on individual taste. Whatever appeals to you and you want to hang in your house or office is a good poster; and it is easy enough to get hooked. Perhaps the best example of a poster addict is Ivan Lendl. But even his collection reflects his observance of the basic rules: He loves the artist and he focused his attention at the outset on Mucha's works.

Most collectors tend to specialize (and this is always recommended to anyone beginning to collect in this field) in the works of a single artist, or themes, such as circus posters, bicycle posters, film posters or railway posters. Some want posters that reflect their professional interests or avocations and hobbies. A pharmaceutical company official comes to PAI's auctions and buys only drug and medical posters, an airline executive amasses only airplane posters, and a wine expert bids on all the important wine posters. Through books, exhibitions and auctions, collectors can be exposed to a wide variety of posters and from that selection, gain a feel for the kind of poster that most satisfies them.


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