What You Should Know Before Buying Vintage Posters

Left: Herbert Leupin, Sport Poster Switzerland For Winter Holiday Leupin (£2,500, Antikbar Original Vintage Posters). Right: Travel Poster Italian Lakes ENIT, 1930s (£2,750, Antikbar Original Vintage Posters).

Vintage posters never go out of style. Collected by lovers of art, antiques, and design alike, “posters feature in so many areas of life,” says Kirill Kalinin, founder of one of London’s premiere antique poster shops. Kalinin runs Antikbar Original Vintage Posters, which shares a collaborative relationship with California-based poster restoration company Poster Mountain.

Kalinin began as a collector of Russian posters from the 20s and 30s. Poster Mountain’s founder John A. Davis has been working in paper conservation and restoration for over 20 years. Both Kalinin and Davis are true poster devotees: between them, they have seen some of the rarest and most sought-after posters in the world. Kalinin notes that his rarest sighting was an original Battleship Potemkin by Stenberg Brothers. Davis recalls a poster for the 1939 International Automobile Convention in Berlin as one of the “jewels” of his personal collection.

The Profile of a Poster Collector

So who collects vintage posters? Many of Antikbar’s clients are in the process of decorating interior spaces themselves and must make the choice between buying a piece of fine art or a poster. While many of their clients do not connect to art on a personal level, Kalinin says that posters offer an emotional response. “You can connect to a period, a product, a place, an artist, a style, or it can work with the color scheme of your home. Plus, they come in different sizes. In terms of what you get for your money, you can get a great deal with posters. Sometimes people spend more on the frame than they do on the poster because they want to do something elaborate.

“It’s all about getting emotionally involved,” he says as he recalls one of his clients, a collector who buys anything with a tiger featured in the subject matter. “He has about 2,000 posters in his collection: one where a tiger appears in a chocolate advertisement, one for a dentist with a tiger, even a poster for Singapore Airlines because they have a tiger on the image.”

Because of the wide array of subject matter, he says that poster collectors are diverse. “People collect all sorts of things. Railway and airline posters are very popular, propaganda as well – especially early Soviet propaganda from 20s and 30s, because that falls into the Constructivist movement, which was also a significant period in art history.”

Film posters are some of the most expensive and coveted in the world, but in this category, their design often comes second to their content. “With film, there’s a heavy base of collectors in Hollywood. [Many collectors] tend to go after early stuff. Early horror film posters are particularly collectible,” Kalinin says.

Conservation and Restoration of Vintage Posters

When it comes to extending the life of an original vintage poster, there are two schools of thought. One is to conserve it to prevent further deterioration, but retain some wear and tear as evidence of its age. The other approach is to restore the poster to something that looks as good as new. Vintage poster conservation and restoration studio Poster Mountain generally recommends a combination of the two.

“Personally, I like to keep normal wear and tear on my own posters,” says Davis. “But we generally encourage clients who do want restoration to keep the patina and age of the poster. After all, that age is usually one of the things that people love about vintage posters.” According to Kalinin, it’s a matter of culture. He notes that European collectors generally prefer that posters have a “vintage feel” to them and don’t mind a little damage or some folds. Americans, in his experience, tend to want their posters to look more pristine.

The Process

When posters arrive at Poster Mountain for conservation, extensive documentation is an essential part of the process. Restoration specialists take careful photographs before, during, and after treatment, which clients can access online. The process of documenting the posters also helps specialists determine the best treatment plan for each individual work.

Initial condition of a 1927 “Women Love Diamonds” poster upon its arrival at Poster Mountain Collector Services.

The most damaged poster that Davis has restored was a 1927 “Women Love Diamonds” movie poster, delivered to them in pieces contained in a plastic bag. It took the staff at Poster Mountain a year to conserve and restore the poster. The process and finished product can be seen here.

“Every poster is different, but for vintage posters printed on normal poster paper pre-1960s we can fix almost anything given enough time and money,” says Davis. “More contemporary posters have increasingly limited conservation options because the paper usually has a high plastic content and often won’t withstand traditional processes.”

Common Condition Issues for Vintage Posters

Common condition issues facing vintage posters, most of which can be fixed in restoration, include:

  • Ink loss along the fold lines
  • Missing pieces of the poster
  • Staining (usually from tape and other adhesives)

In terms of conservation, specialists must decide whether a poster needs to be linen backed, paper backed, or flattened.

Linen Backing for Poster Restoration

For pre-1960 lithographic posters, Kalinin recommends linen backing most posters in order to extend their lives. This requires washing the poster to rid it of dirt and residue and then bathing it in a light chlorine solution. The solution will remove some of the acid in the original paper and will bleach the paper slightly to bring out the luster of the piece’s original colors. After another water rinse, acid-free paper will be attached to the canvas using a vegetable-based glue. The poster will dry taut, which removes folds to allow for further restoration. If there are gaps, restorers may fill them with a vintage paper of the same thickness and airbrush like colors to fill the blank space.

Image taken after linen-backing.

Why Restoration Can Impact Value

Both Kalinin and Davis agree that restoration should not be attempted unless it is absolutely necessary. “Of course, a poster in perfect condition that couldn’t use any restoration is a rare gem and should hold a higher value,” says Davis. “Sometimes we can perform restoration so well that it’s virtually undetectable,” which he notes will significantly enhance the value of a damaged poster.

Left: Image taken during the process of restoration, after the figure’s dress was completed. Right: Image taken after fully restoring the poster.

How to Care For Your Poster Collection

Posters should be hung behind UV-protective glass and displayed out of direct sunlight to prevent fading.  

If not on display, official guidelines state that posters must be stored flat, but both specialists concede that many people generally do not have the space to do so. In these cases, posters can be stored rolled in a tube, provided they are off the ground, out of direct sunlight, and in a room without excessive humidity.

Tips for New Poster Collectors

Both Kalinin and Davis encourage a thorough examination for originality and authenticity, which includes these steps:

  • Turn it over. According to Kalinin, the earliest posters tended to be stone lithographs or lithographs. The lithographic process creates rich, strong color that should last a long time. Because these paints contained oil, and old image will sink through to the reverse of the poster with time. If you can see an outline of the image through the back, that’s a good indication that it is original.
  • Look for uniform color. A close look at the poster’s colors should show uniformity. Any pixelation or dots suggests that the piece is a reproduction.
  • Look at the paint texture. The silk screen printing process tended to result in a thicker layer of color on the paper. This is prone to cracking over time, so if you can see or feel cracks in the texture of the paint, that’s another sign it’s an original.
  • Look at the margins. There will likely be text in the margins. If it’s in a different language from where the poster should have been printed or if the text is blurry, the poster may be a reproduction.
  • Look at the font. If it looks like a modern font, it probably is.

More Tips From the Experts

  • Steer away from purchasing a reproduction.
  • Have patience when searching for additions to your collection.
  • If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, use an auction catalogue to help you get your bearings. This will offer a variety of posters from different periods with different subject matter.
  • Once your tastes have developed, don’t regret buying something that you no longer like; it’s just part of the learning process.
  • Always leave restoration to the experts. Attempting restoration yourself risks devaluing the poster significantly. There is a great deal of nuance involved in poster restoration.
  • The biggest mistake that collectors usually make is mending tears with pressure-sensitive tape such as scotch tape. It complicates, and makes much more expensive, the task of professionally restoring the object. Often, tape removal can result in severe damage and paper conservators have to take more extreme measures to cover stains caused by putting tape on a poster.

Looking for more? Explore posters available now on Invaluable.