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The fine art of buying movie posters

The fine art of buying movie posters — How to get the most out of lobby art

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Forget what you’ve been reading about the crash of the art market. Movie posters, Hollywood’s version of still lifes, are setting record prices and luring new investors. On Dec. 11, Christie’s East of New York City auctioned 271 of the arty advertisements to a capacity crowd, and every poster was sold, some for thousands more than anticipated. Christie’s estimated the rare 1921 poster of the German classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari would go for between $25,000 and $30,000; in fact, a private collector paid $34,000. ”There’s no sign of recession in this room,” said one bidder. You needn’t spend a fortune to dabble in posters, nonetheless. Top-quality prints — both classic and campy — sell for as little as $50, though more commonly they cost between $200 and $3,000.

Even with buys like those still around, the auction at Christie’s certified a fabulous boom in the poster market. Many posters had soared in value by 500 percent or more in the ’80s. Just three years ago, posters for the 1955 B movie The Beast With a Million Eyes sold for $25 to $40 each. Recently they’ve gone for as much as $300. Movie posters have even attracted professional investors such as Bruce Hershenson, 38, who in 1988 gave up his seat trading options on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange to become a full-time poster dealer and collector. ”I thought about investing in comic books, because I loved them when I was a teenager,” says Hershenson. ”But after I saw that comics had become a big, organized business, I got into posters.”

The lack of an organized movie-poster market makes investing chancy for novices, particularly now that both genuine and ersatz movie memorabilia often show up in gift shops and at flea markets. ”The poster market is very volatile today,” says Michael Barson, a collector and author of three movie-poster books. ”There is a lot of speculation, and posters don’t have a standard grading system or an accepted price list.” Connoisseurs believe that although the days of wild price appreciation are over, some posters will grow in value by roughly 10 percent a year in the ’90s. The trick is knowing the lingo, which posters are worth buying, and at what price.

In general, the most valuable posters are ones made before 1940 and still in tip-top condition. Many pre-1940 posters were painstakingly crafted by artists and reproduced through a costly process known as stone lithography. Christie’s estimates that the studios made between 7,000 and 12,000 such posters for the average movie, but many have deteriorated or been discarded, making the pristine ones especially salable. Collectors say a poster like the 27-by-41-inch Frankenstein (1931), with bolts-in-the-neck Boris Karloff, could go for a cool $50,000 — if one were for sale. Ira Resnick, owner of the Motion Picture Arts Gallery in New York City, believes a poster for Twentieth Century, the 1934 Carole Lombard-John Barrymore classic, might now be worth $10,000. ”I know of only two that have surfaced,” he says.

Savvy collectors are keenly aware that posters of certain movies never go out of style, making them among the best long-term values. For starters, there are the Big Four: Gone With The Wind, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, and Citizen Kane. Stephen Rebello, coauthor of Reel Art: Great Posters From the Golden Age of the Silver Screen, says a handful of other movies have the same faintly mysterious ”X factor, a certain cachet.” These include the classic Universal horrifics such as Dracula and The Invisible Man, as well as King Kong, The Maltese Falcon, and the work of director Fritz Lang, particularly his 1926 silent masterpiece, Metropolis.

Beyond those titles, the poster market gets a little weird. Some stars are big draws in only a few posters. Errol Flynn is sought after chiefly in the films The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood. Do you like Bette Davis? Look for Jezebel, The Petrified Forest, or Dark Victory. Film queens like Gloria Swanson, Jean Harlow, and Mae West go in and out of vogue: Currently Gloria and Jean are in, Mae’s out.

The specialized lobby-card segment of the poster market splits hairs even finer; the value of the cards can vary according to the scene immortalized. Of the eight cards in the Casablanca set, the one with all four stars in it brought a $3,400 price at the Christie’s auction; the other seven generally go for $500 to $2,000 apiece.

Which movie posters are the most undervalued? The pros identify these four categories:

Silent Films
Many of the 27-by-41-inch one-sheets with beautifully evocative artwork sell for less than $1,000.

Film Noir
The murky, moody 1940s and 1950s genre that includes The Big Heat, Human Desire, and Murder, My Sweet is beginning to attract a following.

Juvenile Delinquent ’50s Movies
Posters such as Dragstrip Girl and Cool and the Crazy from the American International Pictures studio sell for less than $100.

Modern Classics
The Godfather, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Star Wars look promising, for example.

Author Stephen Rebello offers a final piece of advice: ”It’s a mistake to buy a movie poster purely for investment. The movie must have meaning for you. That way, no matter what happens to the poster market, you won’t care.”


Thumbnail Guide

The two basic types of movie art:

Lobby Cards are often made in sets of eight, a title card and seven photos, each 11 by 14 inches. Complete sets are particularly valuable.

Posters come in six sizes: half sheets (27 by 41 inches); inserts (14 by 36 inches); one-sheets (27 by 41 inches); three-sheets (41 by 81 inches); six-sheets (81 by 81 inches); and twenty-four-sheets (9 by 20 feet). Twenty-four-sheets generally are the rarest and most valuable. Six-sheets and three-sheets are also hard to find, especially those printed before 1940.