With the sweet scents from the adjacent sake brewery wafting through the air, Elizabeth Norris is busy selling, framing, and restoring intoxicating treats of a different kind. Covering the magnetic walls of her Vintage European Posters shop in Berkeley, Calif., are massive movie posters displaying vivid colors, conveying lots of attitude, and possessing the priceless ability to turn back the clock.
Many of the shop’s movie posters promote the European releases of American-made films. Here is Sophia Loren, flashing endless legs and a fetching smile, reeling the viewer back to 1960, when she starred in the Technicolor western Heller in Pink Tights (La Diablesse en Collant Rose). Across the room, seductive young eyes peer from behind heart-shaped glasses in artist Roger Soubie’s image for the French release of Lolita, Stanley Kubrick’s controversial 1962 film. Lying on a table in the shop, underneath posters showing less recognizable characters from less memorable films, is one from 1977 that displays a lithe Princess Leia nestled against a buff Luke Skywalker while Darth Vader looms menacingly overhead.
“Part of what makes movie posters so prized and collectible is that they are the very definition of ephemera,” says Norris, whose wares typically sell for four-figure sums, though some have fetched five figures. She offers posters at the shop (which is open by appointment), through its website, and at about 20 shows annually throughout California. “Quite often, these posters were made of the cheapest paper because they were meant to be discarded. And when you’re talking about images from before World War II, well they’re even rarer, since anything that might have been saved was usually destroyed during the war’s paper drives.”
Todd Feiertag, a collector and dealer in New York, concurs with Norris. “Think about it: Movie theater owners got these things and then just put them in the trash for the most part,” says Feiertag, whose company is called Poster City. “Compared to coins or baseball cards, movie posters are so much more difficult to collect. They are perhaps the most scarce pop-culture collectible there is.”
Scarcity is just one of the traits that vintage posters share with other collectibles. Their appeal also stems from their artistic qualities—now-renowned artists created images for some of the more valuable posters—and perhaps most significantly, from their ability to evoke emotions, primarily nostalgia.
Ron Moore, a collector-turned-dealer who runs Cinema Icons in Austin, Texas, is drawn to posters from films he associates with his childhood. “I fell in love with the gangster genre as a kid, which soon found me collecting anything with Humphrey Bogart on it,” says Moore. Today, Moore owns hundreds of Bogart images. “It’s really hard to find some of the more classic posters because there are only so many around now, unless of course someone climbs up in grandpa’s attic and finds a treasure trove.”
Moore’s prized possessions include an insert (vertical posters that were slipped into theaters’ display windows) from the 1932 Paul Muni film Scarface and another from The Public Enemy, the 1931 James Cagney blockbuster. Moore estimates each to be worth about $100,000. In 2008, he sold an even more valuable poster, one of three existing six-sheets (a poster measuring an expansive 81 by 81 inches) of the original 1933 King Kong. It fetched $325,000.
Though posters can increase exponentially in value, experts urge buyers to acquire according to their tastes, not investment potential—the same advice collectors of any items should follow. Another universal collecting guideline that applies to vintage movie posters involves swindlers: Beware of them. Well-made copies are often presented as originals, and only the expert eye can tell the difference. In 2009, a 1931 Dracula poster with a presale estimated value of $200,000 to $250,000 was pulled from an auction being conducted by a Southern California company because of concerns that the poster was a fraud. “Stick with a dealer or auction house whose reputation is solid,” says Ira Resnick, owner of the New Jersey–based Motion Picture Arts Gallery and author of the recently published Starstruck: Vintage Movie Posters from Classic Hollywood. “That goes for something priceless from the ’20s and for something from today that might cost a few hundred dollars. There are a lot of fakes floating around out there.”
Six-figure prices are common for posters promoting prewar Universal Pictures horror films such as Dracula. Posters from this category are among the most valuable, say experts. They include the only remaining one-sheet (27 by 41 inches) from 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein that displays an arresting cherry-red image of the monster chained to a chair. The poster also features a risqué-for-its-time legend: “I demand a mate! Who will be the Bride of Frankenstein? Who will dare?” Heritage Auction Galleries offered the poster during a sale last fall, but no bid met the seller’s reserve of $600,000. Heritage placed the poster’s value at $700,000, slightly more than what is considered the existing record of $690,000, which a California collector is said to have paid in 2004 for one of the four existing original posters trumpeting the 1927 Fritz Lang classic Metropolis.
“That [Bride] poster really captures the essence of this hobby, which is all about going back decades and owning a piece of your favorite movie that is inextricably linked to its original release,” says Grey Smith, Heritage’s director of vintage movie poster auctions.
For Feiertag, owner of the Bride poster, the hobby is a link to his childhood. “I can still remember going with my brother to the movies every weekend in the late 1950s. My mom would clean the apartment with us out of the way while we just disappeared into the old Sinbad and Hammer [horror] films,” says Feiertag. His vast collection used to include a one-sheet from The Mummy (1932), which he sold in 1997 for $453,500. “When in the ’60s those Universal horror movies would play on TV, that was that. From then on, I wanted something from those movies to call my very own.”
This desire to own a piece of a movie drives many collectors, says Margaret Barrett, director of entertainment memorabilia at Bonhams & Butterfields auction house. “When you’re talking about movies from Hollywood’s golden era, the stars are no longer with us, and usually neither are any of the props and costumes,” says Barrett. “So often, the original poster is all the collector has left to connect them to that favorite film.”
Regardless of the quality of the films—or the vivacity of their stars—posters of movies made after the 1960s seldom excite the experts. This is when the studios stopped hiring top artists to create the images and began producing lithographs in huge quantities. “Once the studio system broke down there was a big change, and you no longer had great artists like [Alberto] Vargas or [Al] Hirschfeld making arresting pieces of art,” says Resnick. Vargas, before becoming famous for his pinup girls, produced posters for movie studios in the 1930s. His poster for the 1933 B movie The Sin of Nora Moran, which features a revealing image of actress Zita Johann, is considered one of the all-time greats. Hirschfeld, best known now for his black-and-white caricatures of Broadway stars and other celebrities, drew some of the original posters for Charlie Chaplin films and for The Wizard of Oz.
Though they may lack the rarity or artistic cachet of their predecessors, posters from some more recent productions do have fervent followings. These include posters for the early James Bond films and the first Star Wars movie and more quirky items such as the original Pulp Fiction posters that showed the Lucky Strike brand on a cigarette box; the brand was removed from later posters.
“Any of the Beatles movies also are big,” says David Lieberman, owner of CineMasterpieces in Scottsdale, Ariz., which focuses mainly on vintage posters but also does brisk business in posters of relatively recent films. “We get a lot of couples in, with the man buying something like Star Wars or Dirty Harry while the woman will get a Pretty Woman or maybe Dumbo for the kids. The point being, get what you love, make sure it’s in good condition, and then just enjoy it. “
Likewise, Resnick advises new collectors to list their favorite stars and the movies that mean the most to them and to use those lists to guide their purchases. Heritage’s Smith offers similar counsel. “You can collect with investment in mind, though that can be difficult because it’s hard to say which posters will grow in value,” he says. “The best advice is always to collect what you enjoy.”
Not every poster collector proudly displays the objects of his or her fascination. Occasionally someone discovers what Moore calls the “treasure trove” stored away in the attic. Norris, the owner of the poster shop in Berkeley, recalls one such find. “A few years ago, I got a call from a woman who was familiar with my shop, saying she might have something for me to look at,” says Norris, smiling at the memory. “She said her late father was a poster hanger by trade, and he seemed to have kept a few things in some boxes.”
The daughter, who lived in the Bay Area, later showed Norris two custom-made poster boxes. One contained eight images advertising various circuses. “They really weren’t of much value at all,” says Norris. In the second box Norris found a folded six-sheet. When she unfolded the poster, she was stunned.
“This was it,” Norris says, presenting a photocopy of her discovery, a poster for the Howard Hughes–produced and –directed film The Outlaw. The text at the bottom reads: “In person! Jane Russell 1943’s most exciting new screen star.” Above those words and dominating the poster is an image of Russell reclining in hay, gun in hand and cleavage on display. “The story is that this was a poster created just for the San Francisco market,” says Norris. “I guess even then they thought they could get away with something more racy here.” Norris helped the owner sell the poster, one of only four known to be in existence, through an auction house for about $26,000.
“What’s great about movie posters is that they capture a fleeting moment in history,” says Norris. “I suppose that’s why I find there’s no such thing as a poster collector with just a few images. Once they get into the hobby, they just keep on collecting.”
Movie posters are Grey Smith’s passion and his occupation. As Heritage Auction Galleries’ director of vintage movie poster auctions, he oversees the weekly online auctions and the firm’s thrice-annual live events, ensuring the lots up for bid are both genuine and genuinely stunning. Before joining Heritage in 2001, Smith worked for about 20 years in the film industry as a set decorator, prop master, and art director, during which time he collected and sold movie posters and studied the movie-poster market. We asked him to select, from the posters he has seen, a few of his favorites and estimate their values.
“This teaser image with just the tagline, ‘Warning! The Monster is loose!’ is perhaps the most iconic image of the early sound-film era and certainly of the horror-film genre,” says Smith of the stark black, white, and red advance poster, a type of poster circulated well ahead of a film’s release. “This marked the first time an audience would have seen the image of Boris Karloff as [the] Frankenstein [monster], perhaps one of the most iconic roles ever created.” Estimated value (for a one-sheet): $300,000 to $600,000
Flying Down to Rio (1933)
“This very rare poster from the heyday of musicals features beautiful Art Deco graphics,” says Smith. “Astaire and Rogers make their dynamic debut in this film, and the pre-Code [Hays censorship code] imagery of the barely clothed showgirls on the planes make this one of the rarest one-sheets in the hobby.” Estimated value (for a one-sheet): $200,000 to $300,000
Little Caesar (1931)
All of the six-sheets from this legendary film starring Edward G. Robinson are thought to be lost, and, says Smith, “Only single copies of each of the two one-sheets are known to exist.” Both one-sheet designs show Robinson as the gangster Rico, holding a machine gun out the window of a moving car as Douglas Fairbanks Jr. holds his hand over the mouth of Glenda Farrell to keep her from screaming. Estimated value (for a six-sheet, if any still exist): $50,000 to $75,000
The Mummy (1932)
“This one-sheet for the Universal horror classic is just extremely rare and gorgeous,” says Smith, referring to the striking, color-saturated image by artist Karoly Grosz featuring, in the upper-left quadrant, Boris Karloff’s mummy in repose and, in the lower-right corner, actress Zita Johann looking as if she has just seen the mummy in action. Estimated value (for a one-sheet): $500,000 to $800,000
Footlight Parade (1933)
“Attributed to Hubbard G. Robinson and Joseph Tisman, this poster is perhaps the end-all in pre-Code Art Deco designs,” says Smith. “Scantily clad Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler dance side by side with their leading men, James Cagney and Dick Powell.” Estimated value (for a one-sheet): $45,000 to $55,000
King Kong (1933)
This imposing and memorable three-sheet is “just a great and fabulous image of Kong atop the Empire State Building with the screaming Fay Wray in his hand,” says Smith. “It’s perhaps the most recognizable moment from the film, captured in artwork created by S. Barret McCormick and Bob Sisk.” Estimated value (for a three-sheet): $250,000 to $350,000
Bonhams & Butterfields, 800.223.2854, www.bonhams.com/us; CineMasterpieces, 602.309.0500, www.cinemasterpieces.com; Cinema Icons, 512.705.5755; Heritage Auction Galleries, 800.872.6467, www.ha.com; Motion Picture Arts Gallery, 201.635.1444, www.mpagallery.com; Poster City, 917.734.2290; Vintage European Posters, 510.843.2201, www.vepca.com