Collecting Posters: An Expert Guide (2022)

Prints and posters form a complex and exciting niche of the art market, but what should a collector know before buying, and what should they be wary of? We spoke to Sally McIntyre from poster-specialists, ArtWise, to find out more.

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Georgi and Vladimir Sternberg, Battleship Potemkin (1929), a poster for the Sergei Eisenstein film which sold for over $160,000 in 2012

In June 2016, Christie’s South Kensington held what would be its final specialist vintage poster sale. Early 20th Century Posters From the Dr. Hans Sachs Collection ended up being the last sale Christie’s held that was devoted solely to the popular medium (though this sale itself was subsumed into the broader Interiorsauction) before poster-specialists Nicolette Tomkinson and Sophie Churcher left the house, and the South Kensington branch closed.

The sale itself turned out to be a testament to the continued popularity and high-performance of sales in the medium, the unwavering support of the collectors and enthusiasts who’d made this their niche. A 1918 print of Emil Cardinaux’s well-known poster advertising Davos ski resort held a pre-sale estimate of £8,000-£12,000 and ended up almost doubling its highest expected price, selling for £21,500.

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Emil Cardinaux, Davos (1918)

“It’s like a feeding frenzy!” says Sally McIntyre, talking of the market atmosphere when a particularly sought-after print comes up for sale. McIntyre is a visual artist and print-expert working in editorial at ArtWise, an inventory and dealership specializing in contemporary prints and vintage posters. Sally tells me how such a buzz arises: “Let’s say they make a print-run of 100 posters for an exhibition opening, and it’s a really exciting image that has a lot of followers. These posters probably went into private collections immediately, and there’s no way to track them. People know there are 100 of them because they’ve been numbered, but they don’t know where any of them are. So when one surfaces, collectors are like, ‘Oh that Rosenquist just came out of the blue! I’ve been looking for that piece for years!’”

James Rosenquist was an American pop-artist whose predominant medium was print and poster-making. As Sally points out, his market is healthy and active, with plenty of followers. The data shows that prints from particularly prized editions regularly command prices which soar above estimates each time they appear at auction. His print, Crosshatch and Mutations (1986) was done in an edition of 29. Original prints from within the limited edition sold in 2012 for €11,250 against an estimate of €9,000, in 2010 for $20,000 against a high estimate of $18,000, and outperformed estimates again in 2013 selling for $17,500.

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James Rosenquist, Crosshatch and Mutations (1986)

Alongside Rosenquist, Sally names a roll-call of graphic art luminaries who are big news in the world of poster collecting. It’s a stellar list, boasting names like David Hockney, Jackson Pollock, Keith Haring and many more. From modern and contemporary practitioners like Tadanori Yokoo, Sally traces the history of work which straddles the line between graphics and fine art all the way back to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the early 20th Century Franco-Russian design-artist, Erté.

And as a medium which demands to be considered alongside established fine-art techniques, graphics and print have their own delineations of quality and craft.

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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Exhibition at Galerie Maeght (printed c.1970)

“In the history of printmaking there are lots of methods that are analog,” says Sally. “In the last five or ten years, there’s been an upsurge of the use of digital means to make prints. ‘Print on demand’ is basically anything that’s done with an inkjet - people call them ‘giclée’ when they want to use a fancy word.” But there’s still a real taste amongst collectors for non-digital prints. “My attraction to analog prints has to do with the feeling that they convey as I look at them, or handle them, or co-exist with them”, Sally tells me. “Print on demand prints lack many of those things, to put it bluntly.”

But what should collectors look out for when seeking a piece of real quality? “If you scrutinize them you can definitely find details,” Sally explains. “For example, I might focus on a particular shade of color that can only be done with a four-color printing process, or perhaps a Pantone. You’re not gonna find the sort of neon, acid-bright colors that you get from digital prints.”

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Tadanori Yokoo, Word Image (1968), a poster for an exhibition at MoMA, New York

Sally goes on: “With an exhibition poster, you can tell if it’s an original or if it’s a second or third run print because of the way it’s been printed.” Often the first editions will be made using offset lithography, or another analog form of printing. However, as will be familiar to many who concern themselves with artistic pursuits or collecting, a lot can be put down to ‘feel’ or ‘intuition’. If you’re looking for authenticity in an original print, “even if you can’t tell just by looking at it, or if you don’t know anything about lithography, it will have a very sophisticated air about it” if it’s the real thing.

Exhibition posters designed by the artists themselves are a particularly interesting subset, says Sally. "The reason a poster like this is something of note is because of two things. One, it’s a print of the artists’s original workand, two, it’s been recognised by a significant instituion like the Lincoln Centre orthe MoMAor the Guggenheim. So you have these two big names coming together to recognise the importance of this thing in this moment."

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Pablo Picasso, Galerie Louise Leiris Exhibition Poster (1957), printed at Mourlot Studios

And such was the importance of exhibition posters, as a collision-site between graphics and fine-art, that certain modern artists oversaw every aspect of the process with meticulous precision. Picasso, in particular, insisted on his exhibition posters being printed at the Mourlot Studios in Paris, founded in 1852 and still family-run to this day. "Picasso oversaw the design and signed off and said 'yes the typography is up to my par, everything’s go,'" says Sally, "but he was not involved in the actual printing." It's important to remember that we're often not dealing with original artworks here, but a zone in which art and the historical contexts of its presentation meet, often with the artist's own genuinely applied input.

Forgery is a problem which dogs the art market at large, and it can only be a more pronounced issue in a medium like poster-printing, where the processes are by definition concerned with repeated reproduction. But when it comes to combating fakes, the seeming weakness of reproducibility is perhaps the medium’s strength. Because of the regulated, mechanical methods used to produce genuine prints, the process of cataloging the originals is relatively watertight.

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David Hockney, Olympic Games Munich (1970)

“There’s definitely a problem with forgery I think,” Sally acknowledges, “because it does not cost very much to produce this object. It’s not like oil paint on a canvas. You can use a mechanical process to make a work so you can hide the fact that it’s a forgery easier. It hinges on people not knowing what they’re looking at.” But it’s something that those involved in print have a “significant hold on” through “a series of books that are called Catalogues Raisonné.

“It’s an important concept for collectors. With significant artists like, for example, Warhol, there’s lots of research that’s been done on every single print that he ever officially produced and named as his. So all of that research culminates in a handful of people who are the top researchers, and they’ll produce what’s called a Catalogue Raisonné, which is a comprehensive inventory of every print made. If you buy that book then you have a list of everything that’s real. If your forgery is not in that book then you know it’s fake.” ArtWise themselves offer many comprehensive catalogs,and these combined with the numbering of original editions means that forgery can be tackled.

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Erté, In Celebration of His 89th Birthday, Circle Gallery Chicago (1981)

Asked for advice to early and established collectors of the medium, Sally’s adamant that it comes down to buying what you love. “My first piece of advice is for people to follow what they like. It seems like an overly simple thing to say, but it’s actually very important. It can be easy to get lost in all of these details, especially when you’re learning. You need a thread to start with in order to go somewhere. Buy a book on a particular artist’s work if you like a particular artist or to buy a book on a movement if you’re excited about a certain movement, you know? Then follow that thread and research an artist's work and start with something that feels manageable to you. If you follow that logic then you are certain to find pieces that will have staying power in your collection.”

Though Christie’s no longer have a specialized Vintage Poster department, this is a fervent and devoted form of collecting with a solid future. Swann’s stages regular poster sales, and Christie’s Interiors auction will often offer high-class prints and sought-after posters. In January this year, Christie’s held an Interiors auction offering several posters by Emil Cardinaux at estimates approaching $40,000. The world of poster collecting still thrives, and values still rise. “The reason they have a value in the first place,” says Sally McIntyre, emphatically, “is because people love them. And that never goes away.”

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