Universal Appeal: Movie poster magic and investment appeal

This is an exclusive excerpt of “Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles 2014”  (Krause Publications, 2013, $29.99), which is dedicated to collecting vintage movie posters. This fully illustrated color guide to popular antiques and collectibles, edited by Noah Fleisher, is available through major retailers and KrauseBooks.com or by calling 855-864-2579 from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (CST).

Stagecoach movie poster

“Stagecoach” (United Artists, 1939), one sheet (27” x 41”): This is one of the greats and one of the rarest of the movie poster hobby for the film that made John Wayne a superstar. John Ford directs Wayne in his classic Western drama. Expert professional restoration. $56,763 (Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions)

There is magic in old movie posters; the best directly channel the era from which they came. The totality of movie poster art, the oldest and rarest going back more than a century, taken as a whole, is no less than a complete graphic survey of the evolution of graphic design and taste in Western culture.

The broad appeal of movie posters stems from that nostalgia and the fact that so many pieces can be had at fair prices. This makes it an attractive place for younger collectors, many of whom don’t even realize they are starting on the incredible journey that collecting can be. Most are simply looking to give a gift or fill space on a wall, and they fill it with art from a movie they loved when they were kids or one that meant something to them at a specific point in their lives.

“There’s a natural evolution with many of them,” said Grey Smith, director of movie posters at Heritage Auctions, Inc. “As they progress in their lives, they tend to progress as collectors, trading up as they go. When it’s all said and done, you see accomplished, broad-based collections.”

Movie posters can rightly be called a gateway collectible for that reason. Few true collectors just collect one thing and, for more than a few, the first taste comes in the form of movie posters.

So where, exactly, is the top of the market and how has it fared in the last few years?

“As always, Universal horror is the top of the market,” said Smith. “Top examples of any great film – the older the better – will always bring respectable prices. As a whole, though, the market is off from five and 10 years ago when top posters were bringing $250,000 and $350,000, but it’s been steady at the bottom of the high end and in the middle.”

Society Dog Show poster

“Society Dog Show” (RKO, 1939), one sheet (27” x 41”): Mickey Mouse enters Pluto in a ritzy dog show in this animated short, the last before Mickey’s redesign. His next appearance would depict him with pupils in his eyes. $21,510. (Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions)

What does this mean to today’s collectors? It means that a cooled market constitutes incredible opportunity to the trained eye. The untrained eye can benefit by association with reputable dealers and auction houses, by keeping a steady eye on prices in various auctions and on eBay, and by learning what they like, where to get it and when to buy.

Any dealer or auction house worth its salt is going to spend some time with you, if you want, at whatever level you are collecting, to help you figure out what you can get within your budget. From $100 to $1,000 and up into five and six figures, there are relative bargains to be had right now and, to go back to the top of this discussion, the artwork just can’t be beat.

“Ultimately, I would tell anyone looking to buy a movie poster to buy it because they like it,” said Smith, echoing the first rule of the business across all categories. “It’s all about individual taste. Never get into something for the money because you’ll be disappointed.”

Besides buying online or from auction houses – at least a few of which, like Heritage, have weekly offerings online to complement its larger thrice yearly events – good posters can be found, for the intrepid explorer, in country auctions, flea markets and antiques shows across the country.

Movies are universal and every town had a movie house. The result is that posters were distributed everywhere and, while not meant for display purposes in the long-term, many found second lives as insulation in walls or as a single layer in a thick, glued board of movie posters, as theater owners would wallpaper the posters over each other from week to week. The erudite eye can pick out the corners of one of these constructs, or can recognize the quality of paper and the neat folds of a quietly stashed one-sheet. The result can often be a treasure, financially and artistically.

Two aspects of movie poster collecting that get much attention and much misinformation are restorations versus forgeries and fakes.

83164webEvery collector should be wary of fakes and forgeries: If it seems too good to be true, ask questions and consult reputable sources. There are always unscrupulous people looking to take advantage of the unsuspecting. A pro will know, based on a variety of factors, whether you have a once-in-a-lifetime find or if you’re looking at a clever reprint.

This should never be confused, however, with respectable restoration. Older posters often come with the damage of age – they were not printed on the highest quality paper, as they were not meant to be lasting mementos. Movies played for a few weeks and were replaced, as were the posters. If a poster is linen-backed or framed, there has likely been restoration work on it, and a good dealer or auctioneer will be up front about this.

“Oftentimes a poster would not have been saved had it not been for quality restoration,” said Smith. “Good restoration work is respectful of the original and will enhance the value of a piece, not hurt it. A fake is a fake, no matter what, and should never be portrayed as an original. Educate yourself, check your sources and you should do just fine.”

About the contributor: Noah Fleisher received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from New York University and brings more than a decade of newspaper, magazine, book, antiques and art experience to his position as Public Relations Director of Heritage Auctions. He is the former editor of Antique Trader, New England Antiques Journal and Northeast Antiques Journal, is the author of “Warman’s Modern Furniture,” and has been a longtime contributor to “Warman’s Antiques and Collectibles.”


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