by Nicholas D. Lowry
Nicholas D. Lowry is president and principal auctioneer of Swann Auction Galleries in New York City, where he has been Director of the Poster department since 1995.
The last 10 years have seen a renaissance in vintage poster collecting in the United States. The last time that posters were so avidly collected, they weren’t "vintage" at all; they were the newest thing to hit the streets of Paris.
At the turn of the 20th century, color lithography had just come into its own, making it possible to produce large, bright images for public display. The results, by masters like Jules Cheret and Alphonse Mucha, not only illuminated the dreary streets of Paris, but electrified the minds of Parisians. They were thoroughly smitten with this new medium, which, for the first time, allowed people to bring color into their homes inexpensively.
The appeal of posters has always been their size, bright colors, catchy images and relatively inexpensive price. But there was a further appeal: posters were "art of the street." Prior to their widespread appearance, art was basically relegated to the salons and haute monde of the Parisian art world. In contrast, posters weren’t pretentious or exclusive. This new art form was accessible to all.
Ironically, this very aspect also poses a problem. Despite examples by established artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard and others, posters have always suffered from a certain lack of respectability. They were created, after all, as ephemeral advertisements. As such, they were seen as a lesser art form.
From their introduction onto the streets of Paris, poster lust spread to the rest of Europe, Britain and eventually, the United States. Such was the universal interest that tangential industries began to develop; print dealers issued poster catalogues, trade magazines sprang up catering to new found enthusiasts.
With the onset of World War I, despite a prodigious output of American posters on behalf of the war effort, American enthusiasm for collecting posters diminished, except as souvenirs. Intrepid travelers brought them home from Paris as mementos of a lost era — the fin de siecle/belle epoque world of dancing girls, absinthe and café-concerts.
In the intervening decades, posters became the domain of interior decorators and bistro owners seeking evocative images to set the mood in their restaurants. The few American poster dealers were, for the most part, people who had fallen in love with the images on trips to France, saw how inexpensive they were, and realized that there was money to be made exporting them to America for resale. Theirs was not a high end, organized field of business.
A newly active American poster market developed in the 1970s, but with a level of interest and relatively low prices that relegated posters to the status of fringe collectibles.
Within the last 10 years, however, that has changed. The number of poster auctions conducted in the United States increased from two in 1990 to at least eight in 2002. There are now vintage poster fairs in New York, Florida, Chicago and San Francisco. The International Vintage Poster Dealers Association was formed by the world’s most prominent poster dealers on the clear understanding that the industry was growing too big, too fast and that it would be wise to oversee this growth.
Sophisticates have come to appreciate posters as an important part of the history of graphic art. But the great thing about posters is that you do not have to be sophisticated to enjoy them. The criterion for judging a poster can be simply "does it make you smile?" It is a much easier field to enter than other collecting areas. Nor do you have to be rich.
More and more attention is being paid to American posters. Savvy collectors, looking to less-explored branches of the medium, are finding that American posters are just as good, and in some cases, better than their European counterparts.
One of the largest growth areas over the last 10 years has been American posters produced between the two World Wars. World War I pieces, such as James Montgomery Flagg’s iconic I Want You, despite having been issued in large numbers, many of which survive, bring upwards of $10,000 at auction. Joseph Binder’s prize-winning poster of the Trylon and Perisphere for the 1939 New York World’s Fair averages $4,000. Norman Rockwell’s patriotic World War II quartet, The Four Freedoms, fetches over $3,000. And there is considerable demand for American ski posters.
Clearly, the wave that began in France has reached American shores.
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