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Psst! Wanna Buy a Poster?

Scouring museums and dealers in nine cities for the perfect collectible in the land that elevated advertising graphics to an art form


AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — We arrived by train on a Friday night in this romantic jewel of a city just in time for the Spandex Ballet. Up and down the Cours Mirabeau, from Les Deux Garcons sidewalk cafe to La Rotonde fountain, chic young women in tight Capris promenaded past muscular men in black leather vests. Artists in primo cafe seats picked out interesting faces in the crowd and sketched, perhaps hoping to be the next Renoir, Manet . . . or maybe even Toulouse-Lautrec.

My wife, Bobbie, and I were thinking this way because we were in France to find the Perfect French Poster. As we imagined it, our poster would be stunning, visually arresting, with a touch of whimsy. It would add magic to our blah dining room wall. It would transport us to another time and another place. It would brighten our moods. The subject could be anything--vermouth, Duesenbergs, soap. We would be content with prints rather than originals because we didn't want to spend more than $100. But, of course, we'd look at everything.

We had chosen France because this is the birthplace of the poster--l'affiche--as art form. The blessed event occurred in Paris in 1867, when Jules Cheret created a poster promoting a stage production starring Sarah Bernhardt. Until then, posters consisted of lots of text and small, dull drawings, poorly reproduced. Cheret refined lithographic techniques at his own print shop, painted spectacularly brilliant, riveting illustrations and revolutionized advertising in public places.

We began our quest within hours of arriving in Paris on vacation in July. We would look at, study and take notes about posters in nine cities, eight museums, three flea markets and 30 shops over the course of 15 days.

Our first day was fun but fruitless, spent combing the gift shops at the Musee d'Orsay and the Musee Marmottan. The posters we found were beautiful, but certainly not whimsical. Then, Day 2: On the tony Rue du Bac, on the Left Bank, we were in Galerie Maeght checking out a two-room exhibit of oils, gouaches and mobiles by Alexander Calder when, bingo! We struck gold. Turns out the Maeght is Paris' biggest pop poster store. On display were more than 300 posters, a distinctive collection, priced $7.50 to $120.

Two caught our eye: One depicted a bespectacled elephant reading a program for a 1983 exhibit at Paris' poster museum. A shoe was sticking out of the elephant's head. Price: $12. The second showed a man in top hat and tails, two women in fur coats and two gleaming Studebakers, vintage 1930.

The gallery was full of Americans buying 10 or 20 posters at a clip, crowing deliriously over the bargains. The market was particularly brisk in auto racing posters. Two couples bought prints of the same 1933 Grand Prix Monaco poster for $22 while we were there.

Galerie Maeght will pack and ship your purchase: $30 for up to 20 posters by mail, $90 by FedEx. I was all set to buy our two favorites when Bobbie said, "These are cute, but is either one our Perfect French Poster?"

We went ahead with our plan to check out Librairie des Musees Nationaux, a bookstore that stocks posters from all of France's national museums, including the Louvre. There we found posters for special exhibitions going back to 1966, and most of the images were inspired and striking. One that we liked showed an image in white ceramic of a man's naked body upside down, with his neck snapped backward toward his buttocks, his chin just above a disembodied male head emerging from a hole in a jar. Only $5. But I was still regretting the ones that got away.

We walked a few blocks farther to Galerie Documents, Paris' most distinguished antique poster shop, specializing in posters from 1875 to 1930. The friendly manager sat us down with 10 catalogs of her current stock. The average poster cost about $500; many went much higher. One of Cheret's most widely reprinted posters, advertising the Moulin Rouge with a drawing of a cancan dancer with pouty lips and a strawberry blond topknot, was priced at $2,700.

Across the Seine, on the Rue de Rivoli between the Louvre and the Tuileries, we found Paris' poster museum. The Musee de la Publicite (Museum of Advertising) holds 40,000 posters--all on computers. Behind the computer room is an eight-room center for exhibitions, and we had stumbled onto a good one: classic art in magazine ads and posters. Two posters from the years when Bill Graham ran the Fillmore West in San Francisco used Venus de Milo to sell a couple of amazing back-to-back double bills: The Who and Woody Herman on June 17, 18 and 19, 1969; and Carlos Santana and Ike and Tina Turner on June 20 and 21.

We loved the gift shop. On sale were reproductions of 50 vintage French advertising posters, from $4.50 to $10.50. Our favorite read "J'aime ma Peugeot" ("I love my Peugeot") and showed a blond resting her cheek against the hood of a Peugeot from the 1930s. Price: $9. But perfect? Nope.

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