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Vintage posters artful investments


Vintage advertising posters are colorful pieces of history that feature investment potential. We're not talking ski posters here. These are genuine works of art once overlooked because they weren't numbered and were used to do something as "crass" as sell products.

It was in the late 1800s that advertising took a turn toward the colorful. Illustrated color posters, often by the most talented artists, made their debut on the boulevards of Europe and America. It took nearly a century before such posters were considered serious art and coveted by collectors.

For example, in the 1960s many posters by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec could still be bought for a few hundred dollars. By the 1970s, the price tag was closer to $1,000. A price explosion in the late 1980s resulted in Toulouse-Lautrec's best-known "Moulin Rouge" poster selling at auction for $200,000. Many of his lesser posters are $25,000. Among popular artists from that celebrated period of color lithography are Jules Cheret and Alphonse Mucha.

"The recession had a negative effect on high-end posters, in the same way that the prices of high-end art were driven down," said Tony Fusco, author of the Official Identification and Price Guide to Posters (House of Collectibles, 1990; $12.95). "Yet the middle-range posters, in a range from $2,000 to $10,000, are the ones that really sell and their prices have pretty much held steady."

Posters from later periods have gained momentum. For example, the "I want you" Uncle Sam poster from World War I by James Montgomery Flagg now commands $2,400 because so few of the originals are still around. Movie posters are also big with collectors. More recently, a 1970 Andy Warhol silk-screen poster depicting Brillo Soap Pads sold for $600.

In addition, the 1960s work of Peter Max, who has completed a mural for the U.S. Olympic pavilion in Seville, Spain, is also popular and rising in price. Posters as recent as 1980 by the artist Bernard Villemot, who did advertisements for Perrier, Bally shoes and other companies, are in high demand.

Because they weren't designed to last forever, posters often are quite fragile. They're often huge as well. Many times a poster artist is little-known or anonymous. There's a broad price range, with a lot of posters from World War I and II available for less than $200.

Poster demand generally remains strong. With so many other pieces of art priced sky-high, that seems likely to continue. Posters, bought and sold through dealers and at auction, are rated on condition from "mint" to "poor." Not all rise in price.

"The value of a poster is dictated by the artwork, the subject matter and the rarity," explained Robert Chisholm, owner of Chisholm Prats Gallery in New York, which deals in vintage American and European posters from the 1890s to 1950s. "Whether it depicts an ocean liner, a train or a film, all these factors figure into its attractiveness as a collectible."

Collectors often buy one piece, then move up in quality.

"I bought my first poster, a Leonetto Cappiello, at an antique show and now consider it low quality because I have seen so many better posters since," said Gary Fleshman of Oakton, Va., who began collecting posters four years ago. "I'm locked out of the really premier artists because of their cost, but I look at second-tier items in terms of the quality of the lithograph and the artist."

Remember: Only the real posters from the actual time period have value. A later reproduction, lovely as it may be, does not.

"You must always make certain that the poster is the real thing, not a reproduction, a copy, an offset-printed example," warned Susan Cutler, owner of International Vintage Posters, a shop in Chicago. "If you don't really know, you must have a dealer or expert examine it before you spend money on it."

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