Get the "Reel" deal

Written by: Rob Allen Posted: 06/02/2013

Issue 23 - FilmFrom avant-garde black-and-white classics to modern masterpieces, film posters offer collectors the chance to own a distinctive piece of cinematic history, as Rob Allen discovers.

From Clark Gable planting a smacker on Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, to Michael J Fox travelling Back to the Future, we all have movie moments that make us laugh, cry or scream. For film enthusiasts, owning a piece of a classic picture doesn't stop at the special edition DVD, and there is a vast movie memorabilia market out there.

For those of us not keen on Harry Potter figurines or the James Bond edition of Monopoly, original movie posters can provide a grown-up outlet for our film obsessions. As old as the industry itself, promotional posters are part of the movie package. Foyer posters, ‘paste up' adverts and lobby cards in all colours, shapes and sizes are available to serious and casual collectors, and with over a century of film, there are thousands of budget-sapping possibilities.

Most people know their Vertigo from their Bullitt, but many movie goers would be forgiven for missing the 1927 avant-garde science-fiction film Metropolis. However, a poster for Fritz Lang's revolutionary flick sold for a record breaking £443,210 in 2005. With big money changing hands, understanding why this obscure German film sends collectors crazy is a good starting point for any wannabe buyers.

The 41” x 81” poster is one of only four known originals in existence, causing its value to rocket upwards. But a little knowledge of film history goes a long way in collecting, and a design's cultural significance should also be considered. As Michael Czerwinski, a poster design expert from London's Design Museum, explains: “Metropolis is one of the earliest and most iconic modernist posters. It doesn't just convey the essence of the film, it evokes a time when we were moving from art deco to modernism and entering the dawn of a new age.”

From 1895, when the French feature L'Arroseur arrosé was promoted in print, through the silent era of Metropolis and Chaplin and into the ‘golden age' of colour and sound, posters have been with us as a disposable form of advertising, while unintentionally evoking the mood of their time. Sadly, with little practical value once a screening had passed, most posters suffered irreparable wear and tear and were destroyed.

Dwight Cleveland, a Chicago-based collector of more than 11,500 posters spanning 114 years of film, says that any surviving examples from before World War II are still with us only by some miracle. “Most pre-1940 posters are almost impossible to find, so they are arguably the most collectible, almost like works by Vermeer,” he says. “These posters were only available to theatre owners and, since they ran on small overheads, the posters they ordered were almost certainly displayed. By the next week's highlight they were plastered over.”

Moving pictures

While rarity is a consideration, one dealer suggests it isn't the primary factor for most buyers. Bruce Marchant, from London's The Reel Gallery, says that, despite the scarcity of original posters, demand is usually determined by a collector's love for a particular film. “The film is everything, then rarity, then condition. The artwork comes in at fourth,” he explains. “The main driver is emotion. I get asked for titles I have never heard of that might be 100 years old, and they might only be £50 if I can find them. But to that person they're far more valuable.”

Marchant, who sees science fiction, horror, film noir and Ealing Studios posters as the most sought after, estimates the value of an original American King Kong poster at a whopping £100,000, but says collectors could instead consider the French version for around £20,000. “The beauty of dealing posters is that every country produced different artwork for a film right up until the 1980s,” he explains. “So, someone might actually like the poster from France more than the American version, and it might also be more affordable.”

Other collectors agree that international variations in vintage poster designs are what makes collecting so interesting. Dwight Cleveland is one, saying: “US posters were often designed by committee. In Europe, often just one artist designed the entire poster. As such, many of the European posters were far superior and many were signed by the artist, whereas very few US posters are signed.”

With such variations depending on region and the era, budding collectors might consider collecting certain artists. Peter Contarino, from North Carolina and a collector for 25 years, runs and advises buyers at all stages and with different budgets. He says: “Notable American poster artists are Al Hirshfeld, who designed the Marx Brothers posters; Reynold Brown, who is best known for his 1950s sci-fi work such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon; and Saul Bass, who basically reinvented the movie title as art. Anselmo Ballester and Alfredo Capatani are two of my favourite international artists.”

A quick check on available examples of Bass' legendary work – such as the iconic The Man With The Golden Arm – shows prices between £1,000 and £10,000, with others like Robert Brownjohn's Goldfinger or Robert McGinnis' Breakfast at Tiffany's no less costly. Ballester's dramatic Italian interpretation of 1954's On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando, also yields four-figure sums.

Investment aside, loving a poster is often the best reason to buy, and that's certainly the view of Christie's Director of Vintage Posters, Nicolette Tomkinson. For many buyers at their auctions, where early James Bond posters are best sellers, finding the right poster can simply be a question of interior design. “One of the wonderful benefits of collecting vintage posters is that they were made in standard sizes and several of them hanging on one wall can create a real statement look,” she explains. “They carry estimates from only £500, making them an accessible collecting category for all budgets.”

The abundance of dealers trading privately – on- and offline – provides many options. Experts warn collectors to be wary of eBay, but with dealers often running showrooms and galleries alongside their websites, there are plenty around with good credentials. With modern posters available online for under £50, making a start is easy, but rolling out the red carpet and putting a star on your wall could be a blockbuster investment.

How to pick up a classic

Christie's London's Director of Vintage Posters, Nicolette Tomkinson, gives her top tips for anyone considering a collection of their own.

• “Decide on a genre or specific film to start a collection, and build from there” Like any type of collecting, consider specialising in a certain area of interest. You'll learn about posters to look out for and what you should be paying for them.

• “Follow the auction market internationally to gain an insight into the market before buying” Movie posters are a global business, and collectors from around the world will provide auction-room competition as well as opportunities for a bargain. Knowing that Westerns don't sell well outside the US is good to know if you're intending to buy into that particular genre.

• “Only buy from reputable sources, such as well known auction houses and respected dealers” It might sound obvious, but there are thousands of posters for sale, and knowing whether you're being offered an original, a reprint or a fake is a matter of finding sellers that you can trust.

• “If you are unable to view the poster in the flesh, request a full condition report” Older posters have often been folded, held up with pins and tape and badly stored. Make sure you don't buy a faded scrap of paper by asking for detailed information about the poster you've got in your sights.

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