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Paul Dean

History Up Against the Wall: Posters

November 21, 1987|Paul Dean

These posters had no intrinsic value when lithographed--and no life beyond that of an event. Once stuck to a wall, death was inevitable. By weather and crayoned mustaches, by scrapers and overpasting and long-legged dogs.

Their artists, fortunately, weren't quite so cavalier.

In Paris, in Hollywood, in England and Munich, they arranged bootleg overruns. One hundred posters would be delivered to advertise, say, the Folies-Bergere, "The Maltese Falcon" premiering at Grauman's Chinese Theater, vacation trips by British railways, or Zoologischer Garten Munchen. Three hundred posters would be siphoned off by each artist and used as currency for food, rent, wine.

They knew they were art.

It took a while before the world agreed.

Then began the grab for those crisp, unweathered, unpasted extras.

Today, that 1892 Folies poster by a then-unknown Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec will sell for more than $40,000. Ivan Lendl has a 110-poster collection of Alphonse Mucha, who postered the belle epoque of Paris and brought a Byzantine elegance to selling biscuits, beer and baby foods.

Michael Caine buys those British railway posters of the '40s and his boyhood summers. Dustin Hoffman specializes in the transportation art nouveau of A. M. Cassandre.

"There is something about a poster that is extremely captivating," Jack Rennert of New York says. He was captivated in the '50s, has written a dozen books on posters and tracks, collects, buys and sells the rarest through Poster Auctions International of New York.

"It's the message of the poster, the way it speaks to people. Bold. Colorful. You just can't sell a beer or a bicycle by being obtuse," he says.

He's culled more than 300 to be sold at public auction Sunday. All are first printings. Most--especially Lautrec's "Reine de Joie," Andy Warhol's posters for Perrier that decorated the Paris Metro in 1983, and Cassandre's 1935 poster for the liner Normandie--are eminently recognizable.

"Nostalgia plays a part in appreciation of poster art," Rennert explains. "They also are historical documents. Above all, I feel they are the public's release from today's abstract art . . . these random droppings supposedly having some great inner meaning. And if we don't see it, our educations are lacking."

So the turn has been to the vital, terse, graphically simple posters, lithographs and marquettes, signed or anonymous, until, Rennert says, "our problem is not selling, but finding and buying."

Posters of the Third Reich's thundering military arrogance during World War II are popular. So are Britain's softer warnings that "Careless Talk Costs Lives." French and American student posters of the '60s, those protesting Charles de Gaulle's policies and the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, are starting to move "because they are very primitive, on-the-spot, graphic posters."

A John F. Kennedy election poster may fetch $200. A Mondale can be had for $50. Already, Rennert says, he has received inquiries about Gary Hart posters.

"If there was a Ginsburg poster, I'd have no problem selling that," he added. "Posters of defeated candidates, the aborted political campaign, bring more than the successful ones. You know, a (Andrew) Johnson poster (the only U.S. President to be impeached) is worth more than a Lincoln poster."

Wanted posters from the Old West are practically nonexistent. Hand-colored, woodblock bills from the early 1800s are blue chip. The beat goes on for posters from rock concerts of the '60s at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom and "there's no question in my mind that some will be selling for $2,000 in five years."

As an international expert, a consultant to the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, little surprises Rennert.

Except a recent telephone call from Baltimore.

He must still examine the caller's poster and determine its authenticity.

"Graphically, it probably is of no interest," he said. "But the topic is fascinating, of great ghoulish interest."

Agreed. It's a poster for the return trip of the Titanic.

Poster Pizazz, auction from noon Sunday, at the Registry Hotel, Universal City. Viewing today, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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