You know the feeling . . . that, “What was I thinking?” sick sinking sensation when you realize that your exciting new purchase was a big mistake. Whether it was a late-night TV vacation offer, your brother-in-law‘s cream puff, or that cocktail-induced, good-cause purchase at a charity benefit, no one wants, or can afford, to throw money away.
For the novice vintage poster collector, it’s easy to make expensive mistakes. Fortunately, although there is no right or wrong way to build a collection, there are some basic guidelines that can help prevent poster buyer‘s remorse.
Ask any expert how to select a poster, and they will tell you, “Buy what you like.” Poster collecting is based on personal taste. Loving the art you purchase is essential because you have to live with it. But with so many wonderful choices, how do you narrow the field to select the perfect vintage poster for you?
Some collectors love an eclectic collection and include a variety of sizes, colors, topics and artists. Others prefer to narrow their collection to a specific design period, such as the Belle Epoque, Art Nouveau, or Art Deco. You may circleover that you prefer to focus on the works of a favorite artist; a specific subject, such as travel, magic, or champagne; or even color schemes based on the décor of your home or office. It‘s your collection!
Learn all you can about the development of poster art. A basic understanding of color lithography, poster design eras and major artists is essential to knowledgeable collecting. Visit poster galleries, museum exhibits, national poster fairs and poster auctions. Browse online poster galleries. Check out the art section at your local public and college libraries. Be aware of poster provenance; a poster‘s history often affects its value and collectibility. If you know other poster collectors, talk with them and find out what they have learned and can recommend.
After you have decided what type of posters to buy, you are faced with the quandary of how to buy. Shopping for original vintage posters is like shopping for any other antiques; you can find them for sale at lots of places, for lots of prices. Flea markets, yard sales, antique shops, sales by individuals and auction houses are all options, but usually not the best choice for the novice poster collector. While you may sneak up on a gem, the odds are not in your favor. If you buy a fake, you‘re stuck.
It is safer to work with a reputable poster dealer. A dealer of integrity will stand behind his product. He (or she, of course) can advise you on the poster‘s condition, collectibility, authenticity, as well as provide information about the artist and subject matter. Because reputable dealers acquire their posters from creditable sources they are unlikely to offer you a piece of fraudulent or damaged art.
The economics of the poster industry are complex. Basically, posters are fragile old paper. They were the original billboards, expected to survive for a short period of time, pasted in public places to advertise a product or event. Their artists and printers knew that they would be rained on, torn down and covered up. The process of stone lithography limited the number of posters that could be created; a run of 2,000 to 3,000 was standard. Because they were not created as collectibles, or intended to last for more than a month or so, they were not numbered. Often they were not signed. The posters in our collections today are those that were not used, either because the printer made a few extras for a small number of collectors, or they were packed away in storage and only recently circleovered.
Prices fluctuate at both the wholesale and retail levels, and vary due to several factors. Because dealers have to buy their inventory, a dealer‘s own investment price affects a poster‘s resale. Prices also vary according to an individual poster‘s condition, rarity, subject matter, and artist.
To restore a poster‘s original colors and images, a professional conservationist may have repaired tears, over-painted stains, or trimmed edges. It is unusual to find a pristine antique poster, so you can expect price to reflect this.
While it is impossible to determine the number of existing poster images, some posters are found more frequently than others; naturally, the rare ones command larger prices.
Popular styles change over the years. Circus and magic posters may be “hot” for a while, and prices soar. World events such as the Olympics or war impact public demand. Bull fighting and snow skiing posters were enormously collectible several years ago. Today, automobile racing and art deco styles attract much attention.
Respected poster artists including Cheret, Lautrec, and Cappiello are always in demand; you can expect their poster prices to reflect their popularity.
The vintage poster marketplace is complicated if you don‘t know your way around. It‘s full of products that look like original art, but are actually reproductions, and no more original than newspaper or magazine illustrations. A few caveats can help you avoid accidentally purchasing an unauthentic poster:
Be careful when a poster is described as “vintage.” It is important to clarify that the poster is an original, old vintage poster. Sometimes sellers use the term “vintage” incorrectly, when they actually are describing the poster‘s style, not its age. A vintage style poster is not collectible; it is not an investment. It is just a copy of an original vintage poster. Typically a vintage style poster can be reproduced inexpensively, in an unlimited number.
Never purchase from the black market or through questionable sources. A flea market‘s real deal might be good for the seller, but bad for you.
Deal with reliable experts who will guarantee the poster‘s authenticity.
If you are buying for decorative purposes, make sure that you can exchange the piece after taking it home or to the office and finding that it doesn‘t look right.
Find out the dealer‘s payment plans, return and exchange policies, shipping options, documentation procedures, framing guidelines, etc. Obviously, you want to make sure you get what you pay for.
The best price isn‘t necessarily the best buy. There is no definitive price guide for antique posters. While auction prices typically define “fair market value”, because every poster has a unique condition and provenance, two posters of the same design may sell for vastly different prices.
Original poster art is becoming increasingly popular and collectible worldwide. Known as the “art of the street” it reflects the changing cultures and styles of the past century. Best of all, it enhances our lives today. Poster art is also an investment. Work only with the principled and scrupulous in the industry so that you won‘t regret it later.