Rare Vintage Posters You Shouldn’t Go Without
Posters, by definition, are multiples, made to be seen by many people. They emerged, as they are recognized today, around 1860, and in the 1890s their popularity soared alongside the Art Nouveau movement. In the early 20th century, posters were used for advertising goods and services, and during both World Wars they took on new importance as propaganda. Today, specialists can come across images that have never been seen before, despite the posters’ 70 or 80 years of age.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of Swann Auction Galleries’ “Modernist Posters” sale. The house began the auction to bring images that hadn’t previously been grouped together to the market in a new way. “Generally, when people collect posters, they are most familiar with Art Nouveau, colorful pieces. We are moving away from that to present a whole different area of graphic design,” says Swann President and Director of Vintage Posters, Nicholas D. Lowry.
Now called “Graphic Design,” Swann Galleries’ sale will be held on May 10th and features exciting works expected to open up the market to more collectors, both new and seasoned, as well as decorators and institutions. “These are better than what most people think of as ‘posters,’” says Lowry. “This is high-level graphic design from the late 19th to the 21st century, and everything we’ve chosen for this sale, we’ve chosen for a reason.”
“Among all of the disciplines of collecting, posters may be among the least expensive. There are certainly expensive posters – you could spend $20,000 to $100,000 if that’s what you want, or you could pay $2,000 and much less on occasion,” says Lowry. Therefore, posters are a great area for new collectors of fine art. Unlike contemporary art, they are very accessible, he says.
While Lowry admitted it was difficult to select just a few works from the sale, comparing the choice to “a parent choosing which child he loves the most,” he shared with us a few of his picks for the most aesthetically pleasing, historically important, and rare posters soon up for offer.
“A phenomenal image by an artist I’ve never heard of before. He’s not an unknown artist, but he’s a secondary Secessionist artist. This piece is as good as the work of some of the best Secession artists I’ve seen, such as the work of Josef Hoffmann. It’s a really geometric, black and white mesmerizing pattern and the type of typography was picked up by the psychedelic artists of the 1960s.”
“I like this one for a different reason. The other interesting thing about posters is their historical context. This was the poster advertising the first exhibition of the Dadaists in Switzerland. From an art history point of view, it is an incredible document. It’s also interesting typographically. It has double importance – it’s a famous artist, and it’s rare; we could only find two other copies in the last 25 years. Posters like this one really resonate with us.”
“Unexpectedly, we could not find a reference to this one anywhere. We have no idea who the artist is and while there are other posters that publicized the famine in Russia in the early 1920s, for this one, there is no recorded history. How could something so historically important just go unknown?”
“This is a great Russian photo montage, which is a style of art that the Russians really mastered in the 1920s and ‘30s. What is mind-numbingly fascinating about this is it represents the Russian government holding a lottery to build a Jewish area in the Soviet Union. Who knew? The image is very compelling, and the historical concept is surprising and indicates the types of things you can learn from posters.”
“The poster market has something for everyone – whatever you do, wherever you’re from, whatever your interests are, there will be a poster that somehow speaks to you. People are discovering that posters are a real area of collecting.”
“This is very important because it’s a poster done by Picasso, who was not known for his posters. It’s also very early – for him, it was one of 3 posters he designed before WWII. And again from an art history perspective, this was a poster advertising an artist’s ball in Montmarte in Paris. It took second place in the competition, and fact that Picasso competed (he was not competitive in that way) showed how much the group meant to him.”
“On a more esoteric level, this poster is a drop-dead killer Art Deco image. It’s not a bad thing to admit you like the way it looks – posters are an aesthetic medium; they were meant to catch your eye on the street and impress an image on you. This is the most Great Gatsby-like image you could imagine – a floating stage, fireworks, men and women elegantly dressed, Japanese lanterns in the trees – it’s an incredible image. I love this one purely for its graphics.”
“There are different reasons why people collect posters. One has to do with who the artist is; one of the most famous poster artists of the 20th century is A.M. Cassandre. He did a lot of great machine-aged images of trains and ocean liners. This is one of his rarer posters. It really is a wonderful image by a very important artist.”
“This is a work by Lester Beall, one of the largest unsung heroes of American modernist graphic design. These are posters he did in the late ‘30s, and they are exceptional images across the board, and are rare as can be. They were advertising a government organization that helped bring electricity to rural America. Right before the second World War, a tremendous amount of rural Americans did not have electricity. This was showing farmers and people who lived off the land how electricity could enhance their lives.”
“If someone were to tell me this was the best American poster ever designed, I wouldn’t argue with them much. It’s the most optimistic, forward-looking allegorical image of two children smiling literally at how ‘bright’ their future is because it’s been electrified. It looks so simple to us, but the concept of photo montage was an avant garde design concept when these posters were made. They were really cutting edge.”
“This is a perennial favorite. It’s the ‘toothbrush poster’; an object poster designed almost photo-realistically. While it’s not a photograph, they were meant to look like lithographic photos. People loved them for their realism, and in this case, it’s such a commonplace object that everyone can relate to. This has been a crowd-pleaser for years, so I bring this up from an aesthetic point of view.”
“Finally, this poster combines several things we’ve been talking about – a famous artist, great history, and a compelling image. This was Andy Warhol’s second solo museum show in America ever, held at the Institute of Contemporary Art of Boston. The image is from a photograph that he used in an artwork; he printed this image without the text and called it ‘Self Portrait.’ So we’ve attributed it ‘after Andy Warhol,’ but generally anything that has Warhol’s name associated with it does very well at auction. Historically, this is a rare and interesting poster because in 1966, although Warhol was popular, he was not nearly as popular as he would become. So we love this as a historical document and as sort of a Warhol relic.”