Next to pure gold and silver, antique art posters, particularly those from France, are one of the safest investments one can make, and among the most likely to increase in value. Before radio and television, and before the widespread distribution of newspapers, posters were the most effective means of advertising and distributing messages to large numbers of people.
As early as the 1870s, posters brightened the streets of Paris, and before long posters were appearing in every western country. The first poster gallery opened in Paris in the 1890s, and interest in collecting these original works of art has never stopped growing.
The posters advertise a wide range of products or services including military subjects, British Rail and London Underground; Swiss, German and Spanish advertising; circus and magic events; and a dazzling array of movie posters. Popular subjects include wines, bicycles and steamship travel. Others are political and reflect propaganda or workplace themes. Additional posters advertise sports, travel, automobiles, beverages and performances of theater, dance and opera. World-class artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec were leading poster designers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Today, original vintage posters are prized as much for their wit and artistic merit as for their relevance to our lives, as one can easily see from the “Vintage & Contemporary Poster Show” that opened April 1 and will run through April 30 at The Carol Schwartz Gallery, 101 Bethlehem Pike in Chestnut Hill.
“The TV show Antique Roadshow (seen locally on Channel 12) has made people more aware of the beauty and value of the vintage posters,” explained Elliot Schwartz, co-owner of the gallery (with wife, Carol). “These were originally only done for advertising purposes. In our auction books, we have seen sales upward into the $100,000 range. Since these are old, they have been classified as to their condition. Usually from A to D. Most of ours are A. We carry these all the time. We have been fortunate enough to get some very special pieces from another collector. Lots of people buy art, but it’s nice to buy antiques that will only increase in value.”
Two local restaurants that have spectacular antique French art posters on their walls are Cafette in Chestnut Hill and
Spring Mill Café in Conshohocken. But how did the Schwartzes become interested in antique art posters?
“In 1997 we met Lucy Broido at one of our art openings,” Elliott responded. (Ed. Note: Broido has written the catalogue and is the world’s leading authority on Jules Cheret, 1836-1932, the father of the vintage poster movement. You can learn more at http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jules_Ch%C3%A9ret.)
“She told us that she had been collecting and selling French vintage posters out of her house in Bryn Mawr. If we were ever interested in seeing them, she said we should just contact her. Several weeks later a customer came into the gallery asking if we had any vintage posters. I guess the rest is history. Several years ago, Lucy was selling her house and asked if we would be interested in taking on her entire collection and becoming her partner. Of course we did. We had no idea how extensive it was. It took one person an entire summer to inventory thousands of pieces.”
Prices of the Schwartzes’ antique posters start at $50, although they have sold posters for as much as $7,000. Some date from the mid-1880s. They have one now from 1889, and their most expensive one now is $6,000. The gallery owners say the same poster was sold not too long ago in San Francisco for $12,000.
“I think that the best thing about the posters is that they light up a room,” Elliott insisted. “They tend to make you smile. Some are more serious than others. Another great thing about the large ones is the amount of space they take up. Over the years we have sold hundreds of posters. We now also deal with other galleries, when a customer is looking for a specific poster. Some are very rare, but others are readily available.”
The Chestnut Hill gallery has sold the posters to clients both big and small. One of their major clients is Philadelphia University. The entire Tuttelman Building at the East Falls school is festooned with posters featuring fashion and architecture. The reaction from students, faculty and visitors was apparently so impressive that when a new building for student activities was built, the school asked the Schwartzes to decorate that one with vintage art posters.
“It is called the Maurice Kanbar Building,” said Elliott. “The major donor was a movie producer, so we did the entire third floor in French movie posters. The balance of the building we did travel posters, representing the international students who attend the university. In the Ravencliff cafeteria, we framed all of the tapestries that hang on the walls.”
Hours of the exhibit of vintage art posters are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 215-242-4510 or visit www.CarolSchwartzGallery.com.