They had the power to raise armies and topple governments. They could send people flocking to movie theaters, climbing behind the wheels of expensive cars, or traveling to exotic locales halfway around the world.
Before radio, television, and yes, even before the Internet, there were posters. People living in this age of email and IM may have trouble believing a piece of paper slapped up on a wall could have much influence, but at one time posters were the dominant form of advertising and a vital mode of communication.
Posters have been called the "seven-second medium" since that's about all the time they had to catch a speeding pedestrian's eye. They are filled with the promise of hope, love, or adventure. Like a carnival barker, the poster flags the viewer down and says "right this way."
"It's the immediacy of the image," says Gail Chisholm, owner of the Chisholm Gallery in New York. "It's not a slow study. They were meant to be seen while you are quickly walking by on the street."
Collecting vintage posters becomes a kind of time travel, where the viewer is transported to another age. Beautifully drawn images from long ago still retain their power to stir emotions, years after the product they advertised has disappeared or the cause they championed has faded from memory.
Lars Larsson, president of the International Vintage Poster Dealers Association, says collecting vintage posters satisfies a wide variety of interests.
"It's a wonderful world," says Larsson, who co-owns the Chisholm Larsson Gallery in New York with Gail Chisholm's brother. "The old lithographs are so beautiful, they're like paintings."
Film fans may collect their favorite movie posters, while history buffs may chose recruitment posters from the First World War. Others may decide to focus on a particular artist, such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Leonetto Cappiello, or Jules Cheret, who has been dubbed "the father of the modern poster."
Like any rare item, vintage posters can command a hefty price tag. In November, the Reel Gallery in London arranged the sale of a poster for Fritz Lang's silent science fiction classic
for a record-breaking $690,000.
However, dealers say collectors can purchase fine works of art for a good deal less.
"It's still an affordable art form," Larsson says. "You have so many beautiful posters ranging from $700-$800 up to $5,000. It's a wonderful selection."
Posters have been around for centuries, but they enjoyed their greatest period in France during the late 19th century. The streets of Paris became outdoor galleries and posters were so appealing that printers had to hire security guards to keep them from being taken the moment they were put up.
"The posters all have a history," says Alan Dickar, owner of Vintage European Posters in Hawaii. "They were printed in a certain moment in time and were just meant to be used in that moment. They weren't meant for us."
Sometimes a vintage poster will intersect with a personal history. Dickar recalled an incident that occurred several years ago at an event in Westchester. A woman approached him and asked him if he had a World War I poster that featured donuts. Yes, donuts.
An odd request, perhaps, but Dickar actually had the poster. He also had a mob of customers to deal with, so he asked the woman to wait.
And wait she did, for about 45 minutes while Dickar searched through a stack of posters. Naturally, the one he was searching for was at the bottom of the pile, but he found it -- a poster with a young woman serving donuts to a soldier.
When she saw the poster, Dickar's prospective customer gasped, put her hand on her young son's shoulder to steady herself and exclaimed, "That's my grandmother!"
David Sullivan began his poster-collecting voyage about four years ago. Sullivan, who works in investment management, had seen a poster of the cruise ship Normandie by Cassandre in an art history class in college and never forgot it.
"I said 'one of these days I'm going to get one,'" he recalls.
Sullivan had worked for a cruise ship company at one time, so the Normandie seemed to be a logical choice. And when he got a postcard from Gail Chisholm's gallery announcing an exhibit of Cassandre's work, he decided to attend and wound up sailing away with his ocean liner -- or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
Today Sullivan owns about 20 posters, most of which are travel-related. He's run out of wall space, but he keeps on buying posters.
"That's the mark of a collector," he says, "when you start putting them in tubes."
Sullivan says that in his experience, posters tend to appreciate at least with inflation and often more. And should he get tired of a particular poster, he can sell it back to the dealer or go to an auction. In the meantime, he says, he has an attractive image to brighten up his home.
"There are a lot of different price ranges," he says. "For $1,000, you have a heck of a lot of choice."
If you're interested in collecting vintage posters, there are a few things to keep in mind. Larsson recommends working with an established collector who can help you in choosing the posters that are right for you and who still stand behind whatever he or she sells. The
IVPDA Web site lists dealers in the U.S. and other locations.
The site also lists some basic tips of vintage poster collecting. The value of a poster is determined by a number of factors, including the rarity, the condition and the artist.
But, most importantly, dealers say your poster collection has to please you. After all, you'll be the one looking at them every day.
"I tell people to first focus on what you love," Dickar says. "When they shoot up in price they rarely go out and sell them. They just smile more."