Winter poster sale puts the Olympic spirit on collectors’ walls

The winter sports in general have always been “extreme” events practiced by the best-conditioned athletes. Every four years, television coverage of the Winter Olympic Games lets viewers around the world see the thrill and agony up close. Collectors can capture that excitement in a permanent display of vintage winter posters advertising adventure on the snowy slopes.

Posters have gained wide popularity as colorful wall decor, and framed reproductions can be found at home stores. Collecting the originals from the early years of print advertising means that the buyer has to become a specialist in ephemera, an all-encompassing name for printed paper antiques. Vintage poster connoisseurship, however, presents some thorny problems for collectors.

In pre-television days, posters were just outdoor advertising, designed to last a few months till the sports event, election or tourist season was over. Rare survivals of early 20th-century poster art can bring thousands of dollars at shows and auctions. Jonathan Becker is a board member of the 1932 and 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Museum in upstate New York, in the area where many U.S. Olympians trained for this February’s competition (learn more at www.orda.org).

Becker wants to complete the museum’s set of Winter Games posters and is looking for a good example from the 1952 Oslo and 1972 Sapporo games. Fortunately, the institution already has the hard-to-find earlier destinations: 1924 Chamonix, France (valued at $3,500-$4,000); 1928 St. Moritz, Switzerland ($2,500-$3,500); 1932 Lake Placid ($2,500-$3,500); 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany ($2,500-$3,500); and after the interruption of World War II, 1948 St. Moritz ($2,000-$2,500). Poster wear and tear is rated on a letter system with an example in “A” condition being near mint with barely noticeable blemished or creases.

Becker and fellow collector Greg Gallacher are authors of the 2002 Schiffer reference, The Unauthorized Guide to Olympic Pins & Memorabilia, which illustrates and values everything from posters to prize medals. Becker says, “Posters have become a big business — now they’re sold as souvenirs. Originally they were produced to advertise the games, not to sell. They produced a lot of them, but they did not survive because they were slapped up on billboards and walls.”

While earlier games may have had two or three design variants, recent Olympics have published posters featuring specific events for fans of hockey, figure skating, slalom skiing and more.

Becker passed on a bit of trivia about the first Winter Olympics at Chamonix: “The event in 1924 was actually a winter sports festival under the patronage of the International Olympic Committee, which was tied into the summer Olympics in Paris later that year. The IOC voted to make it the first Winter Olympics because it was so successful.” Many readers will remember the Paris Olympics from their dramatization in the 1981 movie “Chariots of Fire.”

Just before the current Winter Games in Torino got under way, collectors had a chance to bid on winter posters at the Swann Galleries sale Feb. 9 in New York City. Although the offerings in the auction ranged from classic food and wine designs to political slogans, this annual sale devotes an entire section to posters advertising winter resorts and their attractions. The sale also included a choice selection of Dartmouth (N.H.) Winter Carnival posters and Olympic offerings from the 1932 and 1980 Lake Placid games and Innsbruck 1964. To judge by the illustrated athletes, skis were long, ice skaters wore a lot more clothes, and bobsled teams were all male preserves.

Swann president and poster expert Nicholas Lowry said, “With Olympics posters, it’s a combination of the Games, the rarity, the condition, the artist, the graphics.” As far as condition is concerned, he noted, “I find some posters 30, 40, 50 years old that look brand new — they’re as sturdy as wall paper. Other ones that are 100 years old crumble when you touch them.” Traditional conservation for posters is to back them with linen, which does not decrease the value.

As far as winter sports posters in general, Lowry said, “I think the pieces that sell the best are the ones for famous resorts. It doesn’t matter how good the art is — a St. Moritz poster is going to sell better than a ‘Ski in New Jersey.’ Generally in America, the most expensive posters are the ones for Sun Valley, and in Europe, the most expensive ski posters are the ones for St. Moritz. The higher class the resort, the more expensive the poster. The whole little sub-field is really quite hot.”

Stars of Swann’s 2005 winter poster sale were interesting destinations with great graphics: a 1938 advertisement for skiing in Cortina, Italy, brought $5,980. Another Italian example by the same artist, Mario Puppo, brought $5,520. A black and white photo montage poster for Mt. Washington, N.H., circa 1940, brought $4,830, a 1947 Dartmouth Winter Carnival poster, $5,290, and circa 1940 Sun Valley ad from Union Pacific railroad, $4,600. (All prices include Swann’s 15 percent buyer’s premium.)

Among the Olympic posters offered this February, the 1964 Innsbruck poster with jumping skiier in tuck position was rated B+ for some wear and tear and sold for $805 (estimate $600-$900); the same poster also brought $805 in 2005. The 1932 Lake Placid design is an interesting variant showing a bobsled team and vignettes of ski jumping, speed skating, figure skating and downhill — final price $978. The $800-$1,200 estimate reflected the “B” condition; an example in better condition could bring more than $2,000. (See complete results from the sale at www.swanngalleries.com.)

As you can see from these prices, the good news for beginning collectors is that many lots sell for less than $1,000. In 2005, a good condition 1938 French poster with dramatic skiers, lift and mountains brought $575, good value for the money. This year, a set of five event posters including skiing, skating and hockey from the 1980 Winter Olympics was a bargain buy at $489. A word of caution: many “vintage” poster bargains on the Internet turn out to be reproductions — you do get what you pay for. Poster art is best purchased from a reputable dealer where they can be examined in person.

When asked who collects posters, Lowry replied, “They go everywhere — they go to collectors, dealers, decorators, chalet owners, and honeymoon-returnees. Some of this stuff is so rare it will go to serious collectors and institutions; some of the stuff is so beautiful, it will go do decorators.”

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