The application of art to commercial and industrial printing spread throughout Europe in the 19th century after high speed colour lithography became possible. It was adopted to advertise everything from bicycles to absinthe.
Today posters remain a highly collectable area of the antiques market thanks to their artistic style, historical interest and wall power to name but three reasons for their continued appeal.
What Do People Collect?
Whilst few people collect posters for purely investment purposes, the idea of hanging a poster which is a talking-point, provides visual enjoyment, and in most cases is an appreciating asset, is an attractive proposition.
Vintage travel posters, along with film, sport and art posters, are one of the largest collecting fields. Nostalgia for an era when travel offered excitement and glamour has fuelled this demand. Collectors can choose from a vast range of designs promoting domestic trips or world travel predominately by rail companies as well as airline and liner companies.
Ski posters are an area which over the last decade has established a solid collecting field combining the themes of travel and sport.
Traditionally, prestigious resorts, usually French and Swiss, have carried a premium, with style, rarity and artist of secondary importance. If a glamorous resort and a top artist combine, such as St Moritz and Emil Cardinaux, then prices can be particularly strong. The market doesn't always respond to this formula, however, and can be volatile.
For example, in 2008 a 1952 poster of a downhill skier advertising Russian resorts was pursued by a number of Russian bidders to £30,000 against a £600-800 estimate at Christie's South Kensington, making it the most expensive ski poster ever to sell at auction. An identical poster offered in 2011 took just £1300.
The vintage posters market was not seriously established until the 1980s. Christie's claim to be the first auction house to host a sale dedicated to the category in 1982, although New York auctioneers Swann Galleries also started specialising in the area around the same time.
Interest back then was mainly based in the USA; posters were virtually unexplored in the UK. However, in 1998 the V&A helped raise awareness with the hugely successful temporary exhibition The Power of the Poster.
Today, there are a number of vintage poster sales held each year in London salerooms and in the regions which are dominated by UK private collectors. Furthermore, editions of the most important posters now receive attention from institutions and several established dealers. Online bidding has also helped turn this market global, yet despite the surge in demand, it continues to be relatively affordable.
Pointers to Value
There are several factors which determine the value of a travel poster:
1) Print method - posters dating from around 1880 to 1950 were produced using stone lithography that gives the poster a particular colour and texture. This method of production is no longer cost-effective for advertisers, which make vintage originals even more desirable.
2) Originality - to be valuable the poster must belong to the printing designed by the artist originally and for which they used lithographic stone faces.
3) Designer - if the creator is a recognised artist (such as Roger Broders, Emil Cardinaux and Edward McKnight Kauffer) the poster naturally becomes more valuable.
4) Theme - Popular themes such as British Rail, The Underground or posters promoting glamorous locations such as Monaco are considered more desirable.
5) Rarity - Travel posters with a limited production run (particularly during the First World War when fewer were produced) generally demand a higher premium.
6) Condition and conservation - Travel posters, like all vintage posters offered at auction, are graded from A to D according to their state (ranging from optimum condition through to needing restoration) which can greatly affect the prices they fetch. Many posters are linen-backed, which is done by adding a protective material behind the poster to hold it firm.
A Century of Posters by Martijn F Le Coultre and Alston W Purvis, Lund Humphries (2002). ISBN 978-0-85331-863-7.
Power of the Poster by Margaret Timmers, Victoria and Albert Museum(2003). ISBN 978-0-8109-6615-4.