Vintage Posters 101

So you’ve fallen in love with a vintage poster. What next? Here are some of the most important things to consider when talking about, looking for, and decorating with vintage posters. We used some exemplary works from our archives, as well as installation shots from a few of our recent exhibitions.

A specialist inspects a work in the Collection of Harry C. Meyerhoff.

Anatomy of a Poster

Around the edge of most posters is the margin. The width of this border varies from poster to poster, but should not be trimmed off; not only is this most often where the printer’s information is found, it is also considered an integral part of the poster itself. A missing margin is considered a flaw.

James Montgomery Flagg, Wake Up, America!, 1917.
Sold August 3, 2016 for $4,500.

Some posters include a blank space where text could be inserted at a later date. This was most common in advertisements for performers who might appear at different venues, or products sold at different stores. Thus it is possible to see two posters for a performance which appear identical in image, but bear the name of a different theater and date. These are referred to as variants.

Alphonse Mucha, Parfumerie Gellé Frères / Sylvanis Essence, 1899.
Sold January 26, 2017 for $27,500.

The earliest full-color posters were all created via the process of stone lithography, in which different stones were created for each color of the poster and the image was printed in layers. Subsequent printing styles include zinc (or metal) plate lithography, photo-offset, silkscreen and letterpress.

Andy Warhol, Flowers, silkscreen, 1964. Sold February 5, 2013 for $3,600.


Is my poster real?

Determining the authenticity of a vintage poster is not always easy to do, but there are a handful of techniques you can use to make an initial assessment. If the poster purportedly originated around the turn of the century, the paper should have a texture reminiscent of newsprint. If it feels or looks like the paper from a glossy magazine, it is a more recent print.

It is not unusual for a reproduction of a poster to actually have that information printed in the bottom margin. Regrettably, this isn’t always the case, but it is worth a quick look.

Posters that are supposed to be stone lithographs will not look pixilated under a loupe, or magnifying glass. The process of stone lithography applies a solid layer of color to the paper, whereas posters that are digitally reproduced all have the tell-tale pixels when seen under magnification. The tricky part is that some posters were originally printed photographically, so seeing pixels is not always a way of proving authenticity.

Vivid, luscious destinations in the exhibition of our Rare & Important Travel Posters auction on October 26, 2017.

Taking care of your poster

Posters are delicate. By their nature, they are ephemeral and not intended for longevity. Collectors have different opinions on proper treatment and preservation but the American standard is to have a poster mounted onto linen. This will help not only to stabilize the paper, but also allows conservators to make any necessary restoration on the piece. The process, when done professionally, is museum-quality and fully reversible. European collectors (specifically the Swiss) prefer not to have their posters linen-backed. When it comes time to sell a vintage poster, there is not often a difference in value between those that are mounted and those that are not (although there are some exceptions to this rule).

One universally accepted “no-no” is to permanently adhere a poster to its backing. It was quite popular in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s to have posters dry-mounted to a board so that they would lie flat in their frames. This process is irreversible and posters that have been dry-mounted tend to lose as much as 50% of their value when it comes time to sell.

Many, many posters mounted on linen on display for our August 3, 2016 auction of Vintage Posters.

Framing a poster behind glass is heavy and risks tearing the poster if the frame drops and the glass cracks. Using plexiglass is a less expensive, safer way to go. If you plan to hang your poster on a wall where it will be exposed to natural light you should also consider using UV (ultra-violet) plexi, which will prevent fading.

Posters under safe glass from our January 26, 2017 auction of Alphonse Mucha & Art Nouveau: The Harry C. Meyerhoff Collection.

Consign, or use our archive for further research. You can also contact the department about upcoming auctions.