Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Poster mania... the allure of the product

Various factors contributed to the starting of this blog, one of which was the recent Swann Galleries auction of vintage posters in New York and the sheer pleasure of viewing those amazing images. Vintage posters are one of my personal passions (confession: not too many posters of Australia make it to my website)!

Since the reason for their existence is promotion, poster graphics HAVE to be eye-catching, so great pattern and strong color are the norm. Posters are by nature an ephemeral medium, here today and gone tomorrow; while for a brief time at the time of the heyday of the French poster in the late nineteenth century posters were desirable as collector items (and they would be spirited off the walls), it was only in the last decades of the twentieth century that a strong market for vintage posters emerged; by the looks of the prices realised at the August 2009 Swann auction, it is surviving the recession. The good news is that you don't have to spend the several thousand dollars that some of these posters bring at auction to own a beautiful poster.

There were two factors to the appearance of the vintage poster as we know it: the perfection of the technique of color lithography and the late nineteenth century rise of the middle class and with it a powerful consumer market. I think it’s a safe bet that the poster on the right would attract more popular interest in the product than the poster at left:

(image at right from the Library of Congress collections)

 Probably my favorite posters are travel and transportation posters: where were the favorite places for vacationing? how did one get there, by train, prop plane or jet? But posters reflect most every aspect of life in the last 100 plus years, putting the best face on the twentieth century consumer society: food, entertainment (theatre, movies), wars and the military, propaganda, merchandise....

In the collecting world, posters from the 1930s and earlier are the most desirable, but there are many later posters, still affordable, which are stunning examples. To mention just one

David Klein (1918-2005) created many stunning designs for TWA: this one is on our website for $250

As with all collectibles, condition is a significant factor in the value of a poster.  That said, there isn't the same expectation of pristine condition for a poster as for many other prints. Poster dealers have a grading system (at Swann from A to C). My own background in prints means that I have found it hard to fall in with that system, as I am used to listing the specific faults of an item (rather than giving a "grade") so that the potential purchaser can know as precisely as possible what they will be getting. So you will find this kind of description on my website:

Original vintage poster, full color, 40 x 25 inches. Single pinhole to upper left and right corners, minimal wear to edges, 7 x 3 inch stain to lower right corner (barely visible in main image), overall bright clean condition. Brilliantly colored image by David Klein of the Eiffel Tower surrounded by bursting decorative fireworks.

Either way, there is a remedy for the faults - even major- that afflict posters: linen backing. This (and backing with Japanese paper) is a traditional method for giving support to the fragile paper that posters have historically been printed on.  During this process, skilled professionals are able to mend tears and fill areas of paper loss, "in paint" and work other magic to turn something that looks a little the worst for wear into like-new. As long as the purchaser is aware of the original faults and the work is done with conservation standards in mind (such as being fully reversible and using non-acidic materials), this is a wonderful solution to the ephemeral nature of the poster. I often have problematic condition posters linen-backed, but, true to my nature as a print dealer first and foremost, I personally prefer to leave posters that are in good condition unmounted, so that I can still enjoy that tactile delight of the paper!

(For another post: the restoration / conservation question.)

There are a great number of books on posters. A good general introduction:

Janet Gleeson.  Miller’s Collecting Prints & Posters. Reed International Books Limited, 1997.

Two examples of books that deal with a single area:

Roger Butler.  Poster Art in Australia.   National Gallery of Australia, 1993.

Stefan Landsberger.  Chinese Propaganda Posters from Revolution to Modernization.  Pepin Press. 2001.

Take a look at the following sections of our website:

Posters: Miscellaneous


 Posters:  Transportation (Airlines, Cruise Lines etc)

Posters:  Travel (Countries)

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