By: Steven Steele

If you were to ask 97% of the general public "What do you know about antique posters?" or "What is your favorite poster image of all time?", you would most likely get a blank stare. The funny thing is that 90% of these people have seen hundredís of reproduced poster images over and over without knowing their heritage. Who has never seen Steinlenís little girl feeding milk to her cats (1894) or Muchaís beautiful ladies with flowing silk and flowers (c1890)? What about the "Green Devil" by Cappiello (1906) or the girl on a bicycle chasing geese (1899), and of course Taittinger Champagne ad featuring Grace Kelley (1970)? Can you not picture Lautrecís Moulin Rouge (1891) or Jane Avril (1893) right now?

Yes, we all grew up seeing these beautiful images all of our lives, as did our parents and grandparents. People have always thought these were just old pictures that were used in an ad at one time, and they would be right. A hundred and twenty five years ago a "fad" was started by a French artist by the name of Jules Cheret. Cheret was the first to use color illustrations in poster advertising. It didnít take long for the fad to become a trend. Advertisers were hiring famous illustrators and artists to show off their products. Now in the 21st Century, when 99% of this is done by computers, hundreds of the 19th and 20th Century art has withstood the test of time. Countless surviving posters are hoarded by collectors and decorators. Some by artists such as Lautrec and Mucha have escalated in value so much that only museums and serious collectors have them, while others that are just as beautiful, are still obtainable to the average collector and home owner.

Next time you are looking for a piece of art to collect or something to decorate your home and light up a room, think about an original antique or contemporary poster. Not only will you enjoy the piece everyday, but an original will usually go up in value. You also never have to worry about it going out of style. Believe it or not, there are many contemporary images and second printings by the original advertisers or artists, that can be purchased for a few hundred dollars (about the same as you will pay for a reproduction in Pier One). Original Nouveau posters such as 1890-1920 Operas and others are still in the $400 to $800 range. There are posters for every taste and every budget.

Alphonse Mucha 1897 Beer Advertisement

Although most posters and collectors associate France with the origin of poster art, advertising by means of the poster was actually developed elsewhere. In the United States, by the 18th Century, there were place cards, posters advertising slave auctions, traveling circuses and minstrel shows printed and affixed to walls. These were for the most part no more than letterpress and wood block announcements with fancy borders. By the middle of the 19th Century in England, railroad stations were full of posters, but again, they were mostly schedules with little artwork.

In France however, for a variety of reasons, the situation was different. Inspired by the opulence of monarchs, the French developed a keener sense of art and style . Paris soon became a center of cultural and artistic excellence. It was literature which flourished during these times, that was indirectly responsible for the infusion of art into the posters. In the 18th Century, French publishers started a trend to have books lavishly illustrated with covers that were fine examples of decorative art. From there it was a short step to putting these illustrations in store windows. Small as these were, these cardboard illustrations were posters.

Until then, the standard techniques to reproduce line drawings in a size larger than a book involved the use of wood cuts or copper engravings. Both were expensive and limited as to size. Few advertisers wanted to make that investment, and those who did printed a large amount with only a product name so they could later be imprinted by letterpress with current information. The industry was at an impasse and needed a better way to produce posters. Since 1798 in England and the United States, several printers experimented with various ways to use limestones as cheap plates. Although this did become a cheaper method to print circus posters and billboard sized advertisements, the drawings were crude.

PAL (Jean de Paleologue) 1895

In the 1860ís, Jules Cheret, an aspiring French artist was the first to mass produce "Art" with the combination of a limestone, grease crayon, acid and ink. He had learned to blend colors and how to achieve every imaginable shade by overprinting and by the splatter technique. His first works were in 3 colors, red, blue and yellow. As Cheretís methods and art progressed, many other artists joined in. Today, Cheret is still known as the most prolific poster artist with over 1200 images to his credit. It had become clear that posters were here to stay.

Artists became attracted to the postermania in a trickle, then in a flood. The 1880ís saw such newcomers as Grasset and Choubrac, then in 1891, Bonnard and Toulouse Latrec, with a continuous stream of others including Mucha and Pal in 1895. By this time, besides billboards and marques, posters were being reproduced in several periodicals, collector edition books, and monthly limited editions. This poster craze never really let up. Through the different artistic periods, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, war and even the contemporary period, the poster has never lost itís glow. History has shown a continued upswing in value of these original Nouveau posters and period reproductions (Supplements and Maitres). Since 1880, both expert collector and novice, homeowner and restauranteur, museums and galleries have enjoyed the beauty and investment factors of original vintage posters.

PAL (Jean de Paleologue) 1895

The Poster Collector...

I suppose because of my 25 years of background in the Commercial Printing business and the fact that my offices were located on the second floor of an Art Gallery, I was predestined to collect some type of art. The fact that my father was an antique dealer when I was a small child and I was exposed to fine antiques all my life, could also have to do with my fascination for antique art. But the thing is that my hobby of collecting antique automobiles was the reason I was attracted to Art Nouveau posters. While strolling through an antique show in 1983, I happened on an 1898 poster depicting a voluptuous lady with a new 1898 automobile and a cycle. The artist was Pal, and close examination of the quality and method of printing made my heart flutter. No question about it, "Love at first sight".

A year later, while at the same annual show, I couldnít help but find the dealer that sold me my poster to tell him how much pleasure my purchase had brought me. He, being a good salesman and me, being a kid with a new love, should tell you what happened next. While viewing his inventory, I came upon a cycle poster that was just great. As luck would have it, it was also by done by Pal in 1896. Before I knew what happened, the poster was rolled up and I was carrying it to my car. I should have learned a lesson from that experience, but just the opposite happened. With two huge posters in my office for me to look at every day, I was hooked.

The fact that I am writing this article and selling Vintage Posters and original antique and contemporary art should tell you how the story progressed. It was only 15 years later, after realizing how much my collection grown and had appreciated, that I knew it was time share with the rest of the world. My house today has multiple posters in every room except the baths. I fell in love with Pal, Cheret, Cappiello, Livemont, Steinlen and Mucha. I realized a few years ago that I needed to concentrate on one subject or one artist. By that time I had developed a relationship with several poster finders and dealers in Europe and knew how to buy below market value. I have always read that Original Art Nouveau and Art Deco posters have appreciated 1-2% a year since the 1890ís. The part that made me stand up and listen was when I realized that the poster craze in this country has made a few artistís work appreciate 10-15% per year in the 90ís. The appreciation in market value coupled with the growing appreciation in posters as an art form, makes posters a GREAT investment. Itís hard to actually get pleasure from your bonds and mutual funds. I have one poster in my kitchen behind the breakfast table, Epicerie Lenfant 1886, that I stare at every morning, and I swear that I love it a little more each day for the last 15 years.


Chouquet 1888

Annual Charity Ball

I have some advise for poster collectors and would be collectors. Buy the image because you like it or because it fits in with your decorating plan. Many people collect posters depicting a hobby or sport (cycling or tennis), interesting subject matter (beverage or travel) or done by a specific artists, or just because itís a beautiful image. If it appreciates (and if itís an original, it will), that is just icing on the cake. But remember, the only guarantee is that you run the risk of being "hooked".

About the author:
If you are interested in purchasing an original Vintage Poster or other original art, visit Mr. Steeleís website at or call Antique & Contemporary Posters at 305 742-7071. Steven Steele not only collects and sells posters, but he is a true lover of the beautiful Art Nouveau and Deco posters. His newest interest has led to AC Fine Art which handles fine Contemporary Art by Warhol. Lichtenstein, Picasso, Dali, Icart and other fine artists.

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