The Poster Mavericks of Galle Fort
Six weeks shy of the exclusive preview event that will launch their new collection, Juliet Coombe met the poster dealers of Galle Fort. Coombe interviewed surfer Philip James Baber and his glamorous wife at their vintage poster gallery on historic Church Street and found herself in a fantasy world of classic posters.
They are everywhere. Peeling off weather-beaten, coral plastered walls and billboards grazing the sky before becoming life-nourishing fodder for the local goats at the end of a movie run. Each masterpiece promising magnificent, life affirming escapes to the La Dolce Vita or, for the younger mind, sci-fi utopias brimming with superheroes. Yet they are increasingly given the red-carpet treatment in the highest-end art auction houses of the West, where the rich and famous clamour to acquire the Mona Lisa equivalents among the worlds finite supply of original releases of King Kong, beating his chest as he flies through the air (1933), square-jawed Flash Gordon saving the universe (1980) or a bikini-clad Raquel Welch being pursued by some nasty looking dinosaurs in One Million Years BC (1968).
We are talking about posters, not just vintage and instant classics but specifically the spectacular kind boasting epic vistas and apocalyptic scenes populated by smoking hot damsels, gun-toting, machete-wielding villains and heroes with rippling chests fulfilling their Herculean quests against a gaudy backdrop exuding exotic glamour. This is all true to the dynamic You-Only-Live-Once style of Stick No Bills’ husband and wife leadership team. The diamond from their engagement ring was not, for instance, forever. Instead they sold it to buy the posters you now see adorning the walls of their gallery in Galle Fort.
The art of the movie poster – big, brave and beautiful. So left-field yet so universal is this burgeoning art form in its appeal that one doesn’t have to be a fine art historian to appreciate the visual content. Even pretty boy Leonardo DiCaprio is trading these rarities when he is not out there trying to save the environment. And it is off to the races with Southeby’s and Christies leading the way, prompting investment to boom in this alternative investment ‘star performer’. But the stakes are high in what must be one of the most unregulated marketplaces of all, where the efforts of bonafide curators and collectors are so often undermined by fraudsters selling fakes. All taken in the stride of this go-getter British couple who bring Philip’s obsession with authentication and Meg’s expertise as a risk analyst to bear on every bid they make.
Talking to the Stick No Bills co-founders I discover that 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, it would now be worth about $5,000. In 1926, Heinz Schulz-Neudamm painted a strikingly prescient totalitarian cityscape to promote Fritz Lang’s silent dystopian film Metropolis (1927). Philip tells me how the poster first became a record-breaker when Californian collector Kenneth Schacter purchased an original three sheet international version 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 DiCaprio. The Museum of Modern Art and the Austrian National Library Museum own the other two.
The pro-photographer come curator explains the meteoric growth in global demand.
Posters were only ever made to be temporary ads for films. Most enjoyed just a two or three week display life at the cinema before they were torn down and replaced with the next advance promo. Some Sinhalese and Tamil posterartists even hand-painted their replicas onto large walls, suspended from coconut wood scaffolds to reach all four corners. 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. In the mid 20th century 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. I’ve even been told that the majority of this exquisitely film-industry-rich island’s entire archive of movie posters was lost forever in one fire. If this is really true then that is a tragedy, a tragedy that makes the Ceylon collections we exhibit all the more important.
From inception the Stick No Bills Gallery specialised in vintage Ceylon and Indian posters. This was mainly owing to its location on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. However, it was only a matter of time before the founders’ passion for classic movie posters from Europe and America had to be unleashed. The sale of the diamond from their engagement ring funded a two-year investment odyssey that saw them source new posters from over twenty cities spread over five continents. In 2011, Philip also began to combine his love of graphic design with his skills acquired as an advertising photographer in the Middle East, Europe and Latin America, to start designing his own off the wall collection of Sri Lanka travel and tourism posters. Philip was working on what he referred to as a Commonwealth Special surprise poster the day he was interviewed. Perhaps these inaugural 21st Century Stick No Bills tours de force will be as acclaimed as their forbearers in years to come.
As for the gallery’s vintage collection? Well, it is no small wonder that people from all walks of life are slowly but surely recognising the value and potential of these musky smelling silver fish-infested babies on formerly glossy papers now in a state of magnificent decay advertising fading glories in an endlessly enchanting and eternally fascinating mix of illusion and reality. Sex, violence and intellect collides in an unparalleled visual bombast, an extravagant panoramic feast for the senses capable of inducing ecstasy in the already initiated, shock and wonderment among novices, diffidence among the unappreciative and finally appeasing hunger temporarily among the posters greatest fans – the Galle Fort goats. Investing in vintage poster art is the zeitgeist. Get on it!
Pull out box: If you think you are a poster maverick look no further than the Stick No Bills Gallery on Church Street in Galle Fort, Sri Lanka. The gallery is rapidly becoming Asia’s number one destination for vintage poster art and poster design.
Stick No Bills Gallery on Church Street is holding an exclusive preview of its new collection of rare vintage movie posters on Saturday 14th December 2013. The preview event will be held at the Fort Printers, the appropriately named premier boutique hotel, located just fifty metres further down Church Street from the gallery.