A Fine Vintage

Poster collecting immortalizes advertisements of the past while accessorizing homes and offices of the present

January 13, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

To some people, art is intimidating, a high-brow pursuit of the culturally adroit.

But there's at least one kind of art that is anything but daunting. Vintage posters, almost invariably advertisements for products as mundane as soap, cars, shoes and olive oil, are a hot item for collectors, who, by some estimates, are shelling out more than $20 million a year around the world for rare examples of the craft.

"It's fine art but it's attainable art," said Scott McHale, the sales manager at Gaines McHale, a Baltimore antiques store that is holding a large poster sale this weekend, the 11th consecutive year it has done so. "They were designed not only to sell something but to be entertaining, to be funny, to evoke some emotion."

Original vintage posters can be expensive. Most of the approximately 500 items at the Gaines McHale sale range from $800 to $3,500, but some -- a rare 1893 lithograph by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, for instance, is priced at $110,000 -- are closer to the cost of "a handsome English automobile," McHale said.

Collectors know that such prices, while perhaps overwhelming to novices, make sense, given the rarity of most vintage posters and their age, in some cases 100 years or more. They were printed for a specific purpose -- to pitch a brand, entice travelers to a resort, announce a music festival -- and were never intended to last. Most were printed on cheap paper, glued onto walls, kiosks or billboards, and covered in a matter of days by the next ad to come along. The ones that survived, more often than not, never saw a glue brush.

But if you're thinking of starting a poster collection, you need not be rich or even particularly savvy.

"My advice is to go with your gut, go with your eyes," said Jack Rennert, director of the International Poster Center in New York City, who provided all the posters for the Gaines McHale sale.

In other words, buy what you like.

"Of necessity, a poster is an appealing image," said Rennert, whose personal collection consists of about 40,000 posters that he began acquiring in 1964. "You're going to see it every day. It has to give you a good feeling."

Rennert suggested that new collectors specialize in a particular type of poster, whether it refers to autos, bicycles, circuses or whatever. Or focus on a specific artist: The high-end ones like Cappiello, Mucha and Cheret might require a lottery win to get started, but there are innumerable other posters by artists less well-known that are much more reasonably priced and just as elegant and attractive.

Although purists scoff at reproductions, there is a substantial market these days in copies of original posters -- some of them as cheap as $20 or $30 -- that, while clearly not the real thing, have enabled people to decorate their walls with a measure of distinction.

Collectors for whom only originals will suffice do much of their purchasing at poster auctions, in New York, London, Paris and elsewhere. The art sometimes sells at stratospheric prices.

Rennert holds two auctions every year in New York, in May and November, under the banner of Poster Auctions International. At those events, the average price for a poster is about $4,800.

After attending the opening of the Gaines McHale show last night, Rennert planned to go to Washington to discuss setting up an exhibit of some of his French posters at the French Embassy before the end of the year. About a dozen of his posters of the chanteuse Josephine Baker are being shown at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington through March 18.

While in the capital, Rennert plans to do research in the Library of Congress for a book he is writing about Edward Penfield (1866-1925), the American graphic artist who created many of the early covers for Harper's magazine. It will be Rennert's 20th book, he estimates, about poster art.

"My ignorance in other areas," he said cheerfully, "is total."


Where to find them

Other sources for original vintage posters:

Craig Flinner Gallery, 505 N. Charles St., Baltimore. Phone: 410-727-1863. Web site: flinnergallery.com

Renaissance Fine Arts, 1809 Reistertown Road, Baltimore. Phone: 410-484-8900. The gallery will hold a vintage-poster exhibit and sale April 13-23.

Renaissance Fine Arts, 10307 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda. Phone: 301-564-4447. It will hold a vintage exhibit and sale March 2-12.

International Poster Center, 601 W. 26th St., New York. Phone: 212-787-4000. Web site: postersplease.com

Swann Auction Galleries, 104 E. 25th St., New York. Phone: 212-254-4710. Web site: swanngalleries.com

Tips for collectors

There are a few things to remember when collecting original vintage posters. These tips are from the Web site icollectmovieposters.com. As its name implies, the site focuses on film posters, but its advice is applicable across the poster spectrum:

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