Classic posters and other items of memorabilia allow collectors to own some
of the magic of the movies.
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You can’t watch every movie ever made, but it just might be possible to collect a piece of memorabilia for every movie ever made. That was the task a young man named Morris Everett Jr. set for himself in 1961, and in the subsequent 50-odd years he came closer than any other collector ever has to achieving that goal. Without any great wealth, armed mainly with movie-buff energy and a thirst for the material, Everett began buying ephemera such as photographs, lobby cards, and promotional materials and then moved on to posters. Over the years, as his taste developed and prices rose, he made financial sacrifices to feed the beast of his collection, which eventually grew to 197,000 objects. Recently Everett decided to allow other collectors to benefit from his assiduousness and consigned the entire trove to Profiles in History, an auction house in Calabasas, Calif., which started offering the pieces as individual lots on June 29–30, in the first of a multi-part auction series.
The catalogue for Part I of the Everett sale constitutes a veritable graphic encyclopedia of film, ranging from early silents such as Cabiria (1914)—an Italian extravaganza written by Gabriele D’Annunzio and featuring scenes of human sacrifice—to Led Zeppelin’s The Sound Remains the Same. In the catalogue’s nearly 350 pages, The Fly shares space with Super Fly. Blockbusters like Frankenstein and The Wizard of Oz coexist with obscurities like Crimson City (from 1928, with Myrna Loy in an “exotic” Chinese role) and Voodoo Devil Drums (1944). Enthusiasts who missed the sale need not despair—many thousands of items remain to be sold, and many will be revelations. “Only four people on earth have seen Morrie’s entire collection,” says Joe Maddalena, the founder-owner of Profiles in History. “It’s truly mind-boggling for us. Most of his things are one of a kind—the first appearance of Bogart on a lobby card, rarities of The Three Stooges and Buster Keaton, all the Lon Chaney titles. This will never, ever happen again. I’ve been doing this 30 years, and I can say it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The beauty of it is that here’s an opportunity to acquire things of which there’s only one example, things you won’t see in 100 lifetimes. It’s that amazing.”
Everett started collecting at a time when prices were low, because old movies weren’t particularly prized and much of the promotional material was viewed as worthy of being thrown away. The situation started to change toward the end of the 1960s, with the demise of the old Hollywood studio system. Catherine Williamson, head of the movie memorabilia department at Bonhams in Los Angeles, says, “There was always collecting, but the modern field, so to speak, emerged after the big studio liquidations of the ’70s. MGM, Paramount, and 20th-Century Fox put a lot of this material out on the marketplace, and the end of the National Screen Service printing company did it for posters. With varying degrees of success, auction houses have been in this business since then.”
Bonhams got involved during the ’80s, but much more recently, under Williamson’s guidance, it made a quantum leap in the movie field by partnering with Turner Classic Movies. The perennially suave Robert Osborne’s TV curtain-raisers have boosted the public visibility of Bonhams’ movie memorabilia sales, and stellar consignments have led to record prices, particularly for three-dimensional pieces of memorabilia such as props and costumes. In the first Bonhams–TCM sale, “What Dreams Are Made of: A Century of Movie Magic at Auction,” held on November 25, 2013, the elusive bird statuette from the 1941 film noir The Maltese Falcon went for just over $4 million. Made of cast lead, and with a bent tail feather from when a handler accidentally dropped it on Humphrey Bogart’s foot, this falcon is the only one of several that actually appeared on screen. Last year, Bonhams scored another hit with another Bogart-related prop, the piano on which “Sam” played As Time Goes By in Rick’s Café in Casablanca (1942). “What makes a great piece of memorabilia?” asks Williamson. “It has to be a central plot device, like the falcon or the piano, which has a hinged top in which the transit papers were hidden.”
This summer, on July 20, Bonhams movie memorabilia department will be holding a posters-only sale. Undoubtedly, movie posters represent the most appealing movie-related subfield for art lovers. While lobby cards tend to be based on film stills, sometimes enhanced with color or other design elements, posters are usually completely original works of art, with greater or lesser degrees of fidelity to the film being advertised. In general, their graphic achievements and variety—styles run the gamut from Art Nouveau to modernist avant-garde to Hollywood vernacular—let them hold their own with any kind of collectible poster. Bonhams’ offerings are sure to appeal to movie buffs and poster aficionados alike. Among them: a one-sheet poster for The Cat People (RKO, 1942) is estimated at $10,000–15,000; a one-sheet for Top Hat (RKO, 1935) is estimated at $30,000–40,000; an Italian 4-foglio poster for La Dolce Vita (Cineriz, 1959) is estimated at $10,000–12,000; and a one-sheet poster for Creature from the Black Lagoon (Universal, 1954) is expected to go for $8,000–12,000. (The “sheet” terminology refers to the standard paper size for lithographs, around 27 x 41 inches, on which they were printed. To get bigger posters, printers would spread the image over three sheets stacked horizontally, or assemble two columns of three into a giant six-sheet.)
Another auction house that does a brisk business in movie posters and paper ephemera is Dallas–based Heritage. In its Signature Vintage Movie Posters sale on March 28–29, a style-C three-sheet Frankenstein poster (Universal, 1931), which depicts the monster, his face bathed in lurid red light, looming over a fainting woman, sold for $358,500. The only one known to exist, it was found in a boarded-up projection room in a Long Island, N.Y. theater. Grey Smith, who created Heritage’s movie poster department 15 years ago and heads it today, is a collector himself; he started buying posters when he was 10 years old. “I didn’t know what I was doing, or much about anything,” he recalls. “I just thought they were really cool, and they were certainly very inexpensive—a buck to 10 bucks. Ten would have been a really high price for me to pay as a kid.” His hobby graduated to the next level when his grandmother took him to a nostalgia convention in Dallas. It was the 1960s, and he was buying posters from the 1930s. “They were only 30 years old,” Smith says, “but I thought they were ancient. It was staggering to me—you can buy these things?”
Rarity and increasing awareness of the importance of classic movie posters have raised prices across the board, but there are distinctions of technique and medium that collectors are sensitive to. According to Smith, the most prized in terms of fineness of finish are posters created by stone lithography. That method, which was cumbersome and difficult—it was hard to line up the stones, and sometimes the colors would be out of register—predominated until the early ’30s, when offset lithography took over. The studio that held onto stone the longest, says Smith, was 20th-Century Fox, which kept at it into the ’40s. Hard-core collectors know the names of all the printing companies— H.C. Miner, Otis, Morgan, Continental—and consider them as relevant as the artists and the studios. The artists for the earliest posters were often anonymous. Among the well known creators of mid-century posters are Reynold Brown (Creature From the Black Lagoon), Saul Bass (Vertigo), and Robert McGinnis (Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Howard Terpning, now considered the top living painter in the Western genre, once did movie posters, including those for The Guns of Navarone and The Sound of Music.
“For all of the classic films that were done just before and after the Second World War,” says Smith, “the graphics were just gorgeous. After the war, my belief is that the poster artistry dropped down a notch. For the Bogart films, for example, they’re very stark duotone posters, not very colorful or pretty. That was less expensive, but I don’t know that it was just about economics. I think they thought it was an edgy, contemporary style, and that’s what they wanted them to be.” One of Smith’s favorites is the poster for Stagecoach, a stone-lithographed work from 1939 in which the film’s star, John Wayne, is not depicted. All we see is a stagecoach coming over a hill in a haunted nocturne that hints at the calamitous action to come. Smith is also fond of Italian posters—“some of the best there is”—and admires Polish posters for their “edgy, very avant-garde” styles. For some reason, Poland has produced some of the most distinctive and daring poster designs, especially for American films from the ’70s on. The designs for these, often Surrealist-tinged, whimsical, and graphically simplified, have nothing at all to do with the look Hollywood originally gave them. Polish artists even managed to make Weekend at Bernie’s look like a cutting-edge experimental film.
As for what makes a poster desirable on the market today, Smith cites title, star, and image—plus rarity, as with any collectible. In the top tier, prices go north of $100,000 and top out just under $500,000. Early horror films are top-tier; the top 10 sold at Heritage, all for over $250,000 are all horror. Smith believes great graphics, the mystique of horror, and an extra dose of rarity account for this phenomenon. Mid-tier posters sell for a few thousand up to just under $100,000, and many great images are available in this price range—Citizen Kane, War of the Worlds, Lon Chaney silents, and more. Many posters from the ’50s are still very affordable and are expected to rise in price in the coming years. Many for movies starring Elvis, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe are in this category, according to Smith.
The market took a hit during the recession, along with all art and collectible markets, says Williamson, “but has certainly bounced back. I think that the most dramatic exception is silent film. In the ’70s there was a big market for them, but that has pretty much dried up, mainly because there are very few silent film stars or films that are household names anymore.” Still, due in part to TCM, not to mention Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube, a younger generation is being introduced to classic-era films, which will help ensure that the movie poster and memorabilia-collecting field will stay vital.