So you want to invest in movie posters?
An original, 1933-released three-sheet poster advertising the first King Kong movie starring Fay Wray sold at auction in Dallas, Texas for a mighty $388,375 in November 2012.
Heinz Schulz-Neudamm’s strikingly prescient totalitarian cityscape, painted to promote Fritz Lang’s silent dystopian film Metropolis (1927), first became a record-breaker when Californian collector Kenneth Schacter purchased an original three sheet international version of the poster from British collector Andrew Cohen for a staggering $690,000 in 2005. There are only three other known, surviving, authenticated Metropolis posters left in existence. One belongs to Leonardo Di Caprio. The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Austrian National Library Museum own the other two.
Already the world’s most expensive film poster, the peerless position of Metropolis as ‘The Mona Lisa’ of posters was cemented in December 2012 when it went under the hammer again, as part of the liquidation of Schacter’s estate.
Participants in the bankruptcy auction in Los Angeles were astonished to watch Andrew Cohen actually try to buy back the poster for almost twice the record price he had sold it for six years before, only to be outbid by New Jersey-based collector Ralph DeLuca. DeLuca says he has no plans to sell unless, of course, he gets overwhelmed with "Guinness Book of Records" offers.
Little wonder this fearsome art deco promo for the first ever science fiction film has been described by collectors as the “crown jewel of the poster world”.
Knight Frank’s Luxury Investment Index update of September 2013 reveals that art has become a 21st Century star performer, soaring in value by 183 per cent over the past decade, thereby far surpassing the FTSE 100 index which has delivered only 55 per cent growth over the same period.
Within this context, investment in vintage movie posters specifically, has undergone astronomical growth since the turn of the millennium. The trajectory has been on a steady ascent, despite the recession.
If you were smart enough to buy an original, mint or even just very good condition, 1964 release James Bond Goldfinger poster ten years ago for $500, then it would now be worth circa $5000. Mystery owners of any other Metropolis or King Kong originals posters are, whether they know it or not, sitting on goldmines.
Film posters were never made to be works of art, or to be collectible. They were temporary ads for films that had a two or three week display life at the cinema before they were torn down and replaced with the next release. Unused posters sent to cinemas were supposed to be sent back to the production company who would then normally burn them to save space otherwise needlessly taken up in warehouses.
Nobody had any idea that they were often either ripping up or incinerating precious historical artifacts, the value of which would soar in due course. Tragically, for example, almost all movie posters issued during the Golden Years of Ceylon's film industry, met such a fate. This is what makes the extensive collection we exhibit at the Stick No Bills Gallery, in collaboration with esteemed collectors of vintage ceylon posters, so unique.
Fortunately, thanks to a mix of chance, the human propensity to hoard and an appreciative eye, some posters survive.
The collectability of a movie poster can mean many different things to different people. Some people collect movie posters as a pure investment. Others collect posters because they love the movie. A poster can be a piece of your own history. It could be a movie you love from your childhood or amovie from your first date or the first X-rated movie you dared see as a teenager. While a classic like Casablanca, loved by one and all, is now so difficult and expensive to get hold of, something like Back to the Future can still be bought inexpensively and the artwork is exceptional. Any teen from the 80’s would give their right arm to have the original seminal image of Michael J Fox and his Delorean time machine on their wall.
There are some films that have become so iconic that the price of an original poster will always rise as the movie gets older, despite the fact that there still might be large numbers of the original release posters around. The 1968 cult sci-fi adventure Barbarella, staring Jane Fonda, is a good example in this regard. A well-preserved original release is expensive but still easy to come by.
Then there are the artists themselves who have become iconic. Saul Bass’s incredible artwork for Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), starring James Stewart is seen as the greatest poster design of all time. Robert E. McGuinnis is the most famous of the James Bond poster artists. His original painting of the Sean Connery/Geisha girls bathing scene from You Only Live Twice (1969) fetched a tidy $25,000 at auction five years ago.
The triumvirate of actor/actress/director serves to make a poster valuable. A movie starring Audrey Hepburn is valuable but a movie starring Betty Grable is not. Boris Karloff playing Frankenstein, or - even better in terms of rarity - the mummy in The Mummy, is very collectible.
Boris Karloff in anything else is not. A very “healthy” Raquel Welch wearing a tiny fur bikini whilst being pursued by some nasty looking dinosaurs on the epic poster of One Million Years BC (1968) would not only make a great investment but would also look fantastic in your man cave. A poster featuring Raquel Welch in anything else is not going to make you rich but might still look great in your man cave.
Movie genres also affect value; some genres are more prone to engender cult status posters than others. Sci-fi B-movies from the 1950’s will always be popular, despite most of the films themselves being terrible.
1950’s sci-fi artwork is regarded as second to none amongst connoisseurs. The imagination of what could lie beyond gave the artist freedom to express their thoughts on humanity’s future. Outer space had been a backdrop barely exploited by moviemakers pre-1950. But the advent of the cold war changed all that when Russia and America started their race to the moon. What was really out there, how were we going to get there and, more importantly, if we could travel into space, then who or what was going to visit Planet Earth? Some of the most iconic posters ever created were released during this inspirational decade. If you are in a flea market and you stumble upon an original poster for This Island Earth (1955), then you are looking at a $10,000 poster.
Better still, find a 1958 original release Attack of the 50ft Woman, not the remake with Darryl Hannah but the real deal, starring Alyson Hayes and you will be holding a $25,000, 27x41 inch masterpiece.
The greatest allure of movie posters is that they instantly freeze in time the film they depict. The advert could be for a movie made yesterday about a bygone era but the poster style – perhaps more than any other type of 20th Century artwork - will always give away the actual date of production. The stars, the clothes, the make-up, the subject, the typography all converge to give away the epoch in which the film was made.
The coming of the digital age in the 1990s saw an end to the real art of poster design. Speak to almost any collector and they will sound the death knell for poster art once computers became involved. It is a pity that layer upon layer of over photo-shopped, age-defying celebs adorn 21st Century film posters. But, in truth, these posters are, like it or not, the collectibles of the future. Its possible that fifty years from now a poster of a super smooth skinned, champagne-blonde Leonardo de Caprio and his equally porcelain-skinned cohorts in Baz Luhrmanns fascinatingly flawed remake of a remake of The Great Gatsby will fetch $10,000,000 because all the original release posters except one have been burnt in a Hollywood back-lot.
In the meantime, the value of the finite number of 20th century posters that are out there is always increasing; the further into the 21st Century we travel. You could even go so far as to argue that vintage movie art looks set to continue to outperform almost every other asset class, remaining an even better bet than diamonds, because we are still finding diamonds. Put this within the context of the meteoric growth in the global collectors market and the investment potential is clear.
So if you are in that flea market and you see a poster for “Forbidden Planet” (1957) and it’s only ten bucks, how do you know if it’s real?
The following instructions will stand you in good stead.
Carefully unfold the poster in a clean, moisture and breeze-free space. Measure the width and length. Until 1985, most movie posters were 27by 41 inches for a “one-sheet”. A one-sheet poster was the easiest format to print and therefore the most common movie poster produced. One-sheets dating from this period usually have a white border surrounding the print area. After 1985, the proportions changed to 27 by 40 inches and studios started using the whole space, often ignoring the white border and bleeding the artwork to the very outside edge of the paper. www.IMDB.com will tell you exactly when the film was released and therefore clarify the authenticity of the poster.
The quality of the print is incredibly important. Usually, original posters have some very small text disclaimers at the bottom of the artwork that can only be read when very close up. If the letters seem to be blurred then check them with a magnifying glass. If they are still blurred then it means the poster is probably a reproduction. Most reproductions are made from photographs of original posters. Sometimes the quality of camera work and lighting is inadequate so the smaller details loose their sharpness.
Paper quality is another key indicator. If the film is fifty years old then the paper should look old. The general rule is that if it appears too new to be old, then it probably is. The original paper used for posters contained acids. The acids turn the paper yellow over time. Reproductions are generally digital so will retain the snow-white hue of modern digital print paper.
The creases form folds. Before 1985, original posters were folded before being shipped to movie theaters. Since then, studios have rolled the posters and shipped them in tubes. Some of the smarter reproductions have been folded to give the impression that they are pre-1985 but the creases look obviously new and don’t have the hard, almost worn edges of an old poster.
Check the poster for copyright disclaimers normally located along the bottom edge of the artwork. If you cannot find them then this may mean the poster is a fake. Until the turn of the millennium most American movie posters had a National Screen Service (NSS) number. Posters produced since 2000 do not have the NSS number.
From inception Stick No Bills first gallery has, mainly owing to its location on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, specialised in collecting, exhibiting and selling vintage Asian posters. However, my wife and my love of classic posters from Europe and America had to be unleashed; we thought: why not become Sri Lanka’s first global vintage poster dealers? So, fuelled by the renewed buying power of the local market in recent years, combined with the fast-growing worldwide interest in alternative investments, the gallery began to source and stock a limited number of beautiful western movie posters and lobby cards in 2011.
I am obsessed with collecting movie posters. Call me a nerd but I have to admit I still get excited at the prospect of finding a long-forgotten yet archetypal art nouveau Polish 1970s film poster in some obscure cinema basement in a Warsaw backstreet, even if it turns out to be worthless in today’s capricious art market. Movie posters are not like stamps or baseball cards; they have huge artistic influence and appeal. They tell you so much about the hopes and fears of the time and place within which they were created.
Believe me, I would love to own a Picasso but my finances are slightly short of the $100,000,000 dollars required. And, even if I had the money, I’d have to ask myself: would I get more pleasure from admiring the Spaniard’s incredible brushwork and groundbreaking cubism or from a poster of a smoking-hot fifty foot vamp tossing cars around an American freeway in 1955? I found a hand painted poster for the 1965 classic Tarzan & King Kong in a market in Delhi and I shall not part with it in the foreseeable future. Not only do I love the story it tells; it could also be my retirement fund”.
Philip James Baber was interviewed on site at Stick No Bills’ flagship gallery on Church Street in Galle Fort.
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