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| By Jack Rennert | From 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.

When you enter the world of posters, it matters little how much you know about art; the cast of characters is quite different, anyway. True, there are a few acknowledged world-class painters who have drifted occasionally into the realm of commercial graphic design; you might run across names like Picasso, Cocteau, Miro, Van Dongen, Kokoschka or Warhol, bur often it was not their most representative or important work.

One notable exception is the great Toulouse-Lautrec, who fearlessly crossed the line between fine art and commercial lithography, previously considered by many an unbreachable barrier, and scored equally well on both sides. In fact, his posters are regarded as the apotheosis of poster design, and priced higher than those of any other artist. His "Moulin Rouge" holds the record for the highest price ever paid for a poster at auction. At a sale held by PAI in New York in 1990, the poster sold for $220,000. But even Toulouse Lautrec created only some 30 posters--compared with hundreds of paintings, drawings and lithographs.

For the most part, however, the artists who created the best posters, and the most numerous, spent their whole careers in applied arts. The big names among poster aficionados are virtually unknown among other types of art lovers: names like Mucha, Steinlen, Pal, Cassandre, Colin, Cappiello in France; Baumberger and Cardinaux in Switzerland; Dudovich and Metlicovitz in Italy; Hohlwein, Erdt, and Schnackenberg in Germany; Beardsley and Hardy in Britain; Penfield, Bradley and Leyendecker in the United States.

These artists were graphic designers first and foremost; some did it because it was easier to make a living that way than to gamble on acceptance by a fickle public. Some, like Cassandre, actually began as fine artists but realized that poster art was more democratic and instead of being seen by a few thousand people at art museums, could be viewed by millions daily on busy street corners.

Until the mid-1800s, the only printed matter found on walls, fences, bulletin boards and kiosks of great cities were letterpress or wood block announcements, official notices and, occasionally, messages from merchants, theatrical troupes, etc. In the United States, some of these announcements began to acquire a little color when the country was finally settled from coast to coast, during the era of the traveling minstrel. Later, vaudeville shows began, culminating with the great circuses that competed for the public's attention. Early American show posters are without a doubt the best in the world--and America's sole, unique contribution to poster art--but there is nary a signature on any of them. It's the printers who got what credit there was: Strobridge in Cincinnati, Thomas & Wyle in New York, Calhoun in Hartford, and Morgan in Cleveland.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the situation was entirely different. From the start, poster designers signed their work just like any other artists, and they received well-deserved credit. France gave the world the man who lifted posters from their humble status and called attention to them as artwork: Jules Chéret. As a printer's apprentice, Chéret noticed the drabness of printed public notices. He submitted a daringly innovative design to a major celebrity of his day, composer Jacques Offenbach, knowing that if such an exalted personality would approve the poster for his latest operetta, the public would go along. The composer was flattered and had the poster printed. From then on, there was no stopping Chéret. In a short time, he became the best known posterist in Paris. His airy posters with flimsily clad damsels frolicking merrily through all sorts of commercial messages brightened every corner of the city.

Others got into the act. The biggest boost came in 1891 from the incomparable Toulouse-Lautrec, who provided a new direction in perfect counterpoint to Chéret's frothy conceits with his mordant, often downright cynical, approach. Next on the scene was Alphonse Mucha, with his 1895 poster of the best known actress of the day, Sarah Bernhardt. Where Chéret stood for carefree gaiety and Toulouse-Lautrec for satirical bite, Mucha introduced pious reverence. His approach led to posters in the highly decorative style which became known as Art Nouveau. It was the first distinctive art style to become popularized mostly via applied arts.

With so much beauty staring at them from every wall, people responded predictably. The mid-1890s became an era of a shortlived but very intense poster craze (affichomanie was the term coined for it in France). Within the space of a very few months, several books appeared on posters; poster magazines sprang up in major cities throughout the world; art galleries started displaying posters, and print dealers sold them. Poster exhibitions were everywhere--the biggest one, arranged by a private collector in Reims in 1896, had well over 1,600 items on view.

The demand for posters became so acute that printers routinely set aside a portion of the press run, sometimes without advertising copy, so that dealers could sell the posters as art for the home. As the next logical step, some of the most popular artists were asked to create designs that were meant as art for the home to begin with--the so-called "decorative panels," often coming in matched sets of two or four. To complete the circle, the advertisers then demanded that these designs be made available to them, and published them with their sales copy as posters!

But as quickly as it came, the poster craze ran its course. By 1900, most of the magazines had folded, print dealers stopped stocking posters, and the public largely stopped bribing bill-posters to get their valuable cargo. Great posters were still created, but as an art form collectible posters slumbered until their recent revival.

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.

Today, poster collecting is big business, and getting bigger at a steady rate. The semiannual poster auctions of PAI regularly bring in about $1.5 million at each sale. At least 100 books have been published in the last decade. Museums devoted to posters exist in several cities throughout the world; at least two are under development in Japan, and this writer hopes to found one in New York City in the near future. With serious collectors in just about every country imaginable, all indications are that poster collecting is here to stay.

Jack Rennert is the author of Posters of the Belle Epoch, The Wine Spectator Collection. He is president of Poster Auctions International. At the Auction