Go Big and Go Bold

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For the “wow” factor, look to the past to make a powerful impact on the present. Amy Paige Condon takes a closer look at vintage poster art.

Vintage advertising posters from the early 20th century are the Shelby Cobras of wall art—exuberant, muscular and ageless—and just as collectible.  Their pointed visual messages resonate today, whether extolling the virtues of quick-dry paint or trumpeting the “green devil” aftermath of absinthe.  Because of the precision of stone lithography printing, their colors still ring true.

These posters are “not wimpy art,” explains Tom Lewis, an avid collector and owner of Old Town Vintage Posters in Bluffton, S.C.  “They cover walls very well and very quickly, and you can get a good read on who someone is by what they collect.”

Tom knows from experience.  The moment he bought his first poster—a 1919 Geisweiler Wine ad—nearly 30 years ago, he and his wife, Judy, were “hooked.”  When they relocated to Normandy, France, for his automotive industry job, they began combing through shops in Paris—ground zero for poster collectors.  Now “retired” to the Lowcountry, Tom has turned his passion into profit by dealing in the currency of the original mad men.  To enter his shop is to receive a master class in collecting and conserving a thoroughly modern art.

Pick Your Promotion

Whether you lean toward posters touting travel, food and drink, early automobiles, movies, festivals, concerts or fashion, Tom urges potential collectors to start with what provokes a visceral reaction—buying for the “wow factor” as well as the provenance.

Then there are the artists to consider.  Jules Chéret, the father of posters, was a contemporary of Alphonse Mucha and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec during the Belle Époque of late-1800s France, when flowing-haired beauties pushed biscuits and rolling papers.

Italian artist Leonetto Cappiello showed up in Paris around 1905 and revolutionized the medium.  Because his designs were simple and captivating—bleached white peacocks for a French laundry, as example—Cappiello’s illustrations were coveted by purveyors.  His illustrations equaled profits, then and now.  Posters with his signature, increasingly rare today, hold their value and command prices in the thousands.

Until the 1950s, the large-sheet advertising posters in Europe were printed by stone lithography.  Artists would draw the image with wax pencils—backward—on three to five limestone blocks, depending upon the number of colors needed.  Then each set of blocks was etched with acid, creating a relief.  Oil-based ink was rolled onto the stone, and the paper was pressed onto the stone to transfer one color at a time, allowing for remarkably vibrant and detailed works that rival paintings.

Protect Your Investment

Because paper grows brittle and frail over time, posters are susceptible to damage from mold and mildew, folding and tearing.  Tom recommends these steps for protecting your investment:

•        To clean, repair and restore vintage posters, hire a skilled conservator, such as Marnix Zetteler of La Feuilleraie in Okatie, S.C.

•        Do not dry mount posters, which will damage and devalue the work over time.

•        Instead, back posters on linen.  They will show ripples within the frame, but that denotes authenticity.

•        Use Plexiglas or non-glare glass for protection and display.

Old Town Vintage Posters » 49 Boundary St., Bluffton, S.C.  843-837-3311.  www.oldtownvintageposters.com