Investing & Collecting Original Vintage Posters

In 1963, during an office renovation of a Parisian literary journal, workmen found hundreds of Toulouse-Lautrec posters rolled up under the floorboards. The ones in the best condition could be bought for a few hundred dollars. Even in the 1970s, one dealer had 100 copies of Lautrec's Divan Japonais, which he sold for $800 each.

Today, these posters sell for more than $25,000. In 1989, Toulouse-Lautrec's 3-sheet Moulin Rouge sold for $220,000, at the time, the highest price ever paid for a fine art poster at auction. If this masterpiece were available today, it might bring two to four times that amount.

When the modern poster market emerged in the late 1970s, much of the attention focused on 19th century French artists like Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha, and Jules Cheret as well as the top Art Deco artists, notably Cassandre and Fix-Masseau. As the market has matured, it has also broadened with new discoveries every year.  

Italian, Swiss, Russian, Dutch, German and British posters have developed into specialties; likewise Mid-Century Modern posters and other post-WWII designs have exploded in popularity and price. The market has also strengthened for many subjects like travel posters, Olympics, and war and propaganda. Today, virtually every poster style and period can be found, with fine images ranging from a few hundred dollars to thousands.

A Key to Poster Value: Six factors that affect price & collectibility in fine art posters

How does one determine the value of original vintage posters? As with any fine art, the task is not always simple. Here are some guidelines:

1. Printing Method: Most fine art posters from the 1880s through the 1930s were printed using the difficult and now highly valued process of stone lithography in which:

    i.   Each color is hand drawn or painted onto a separate slab of porous stone,

    ii.   The design is fixed on the stone with acid,

    iii.  Fresh ink is applied to the stone and absorbed in the fixed areas,

    iv. The ink is pressed onto the paper through pressure to transfer the image, and

    v.  After drying the process is repeated with other stones for the other colors - typically yellow, red, blue and black.

The vibrancy of color and texture achieved in stone lithography is unsurpassed to this day. 

After World War II, stone lithography was replaced by the photo offset and silkscreen processes. Typically, these mechanical methods are less highly valued, although offset or silk screened posters can still command high prices if they are rare, were created by a highly recognized artist or advertise a famous movie. Today, silkscreens especially from Switzerland and Japan can be quite spectacular.

2. Artistic Achievement:  Posters by recognized artists and graphic designers normally have a higher value. Toulouse-Lautrec's great posters legitimized the medium as a form of fine art, and attracted other talented artists to the field. Today, the list of so-called "notable" artists has greatly expanded as collectors have become exposed to specialized areas of collecting through the media, books and exhibitions.

3. Subject: Demand can vary dramatically for different subjects. Typically, ocean liners, automobiles and skiing are high demand subjects, while posters for laundry soap or peas have less intrinsic appeal to most people.

Subject appeal, however, can change dramatically. For example, there was new interest in the cigar poster in the late '90s, while interest in cigarette advertising declined.

4. Rarity: Posters were customarily made in runs of 250 to 3000 for posting on walls or poster kiosks. Those that were posted normally did not survive, so we are left with those that were saved by artists, collectors, clients or museums, or were left over in a printer's warehouse. The number of surviving posters varies tremendously by artist, country, client and printer. Rare posters of quality attract more interest, and may therefore sell for a considerably higher price.

Rarity can be difficult to determine, as no one generally knows how many of an image were printed, never mind still exist. And as museums and collectors take a poster out of the market, availability can change dramatically.

5. Condition:  Condition is a corollary of rarity - when a poster is rare, collectors often will consider it even in poor condition.

Posters are graded from A to D based on their condition before restoration. In some instances condition can make the difference of thousands of dollars in price.

Condition ratings are subjective and vary due to the knowledge and standards of the assessor. At Vintage Art Source, we attempt to be conservative in our ratings, with a bias towards being more critical rather than less.

6. Conservation:  Today most posters are conservation mounted on acid-free barrier and cotton canvas ("linen backing"), or rice paper (Japon). Often touch-up restoration is done with watercolor pencils and is reversible. Non-conservation techniques such as dry mounting or non-reversible touch-up can reduce the value of a poster, as the poster's life is shortened or its originality compromised.