Who were your mentors in this field?
I learned from other dealers, like José Carpio of Cinemonde in San Francisco and John Kobal, in Hollywood. Then there was James Card, who ran Eastman House; he brought Louise Brooks out of alcoholic obscurity, up to Rochester. I learned a lot about old movies in the few years I knew him. He wrote a great book about growing up with silent films. I bought a lot of his collection.
In the days when I used to spend time in the gallery, I often learned from the customers, serious movie buffs like this old guy who personally knew a lot of the character actors of the silent era. Then we have the occasional movie stars or the screenwriters who come in, like Uma Thurman and Benicio del Toro. That’s always fun.
What did Uma buy?
Wonderfully graphic Polish posters. Benicio bought Italian neo-Realists. And Alec Baldwin bought Nightmare Alley, a great ‘40s noir poster.
What effect does condition have on value?
Very often you can get a better buy when something has condition issues. In 1986 I bought my The Babe Comes Home poster, from Babe Ruth’s second film foray, a romantic comedy about— what else?—a baseball player. It cost me $600, unbacked and needing light restoration. If it were pristine, it would have cost about $1,500.
What are the most common condition problems?
Posters were generally shipped to the theaters flat, folded once length-wise and three times across. So you often have to deal with creases and losses in those areas. In general, you don’t want to see tremendous loss from important parts of the image, like the stars’ faces. Unframed or improperly framed, paper can become brittle, yellowed or faded. That could slash value. A Wizard of Oz poster came into the gallery that would’ve been worth $10,000; but because it was yellowed, we paid $1,000. Vivid colors are key. But some things are so rare that you get it in whatever shape you can get it.
How do you preserve this material?
I frame posters with UV Plexiglas and always keep them out of direct sunlight. If they are on linen you can roll them. I like to keep lobby cards in beautiful albums or archival boxes. Those you shouldn’t roll. I store a lot of material in fireproof flat files. Linen backing is crucial for old posters, because the old paper really crumbles. Purists prefer Japanese rice paper, but linen is usually fine.
What’s kosher, restoration-wise?
It depends on if you’re going to keep it or resell it. You want to make sure it has a backing and maybe just touch up the folds. In general, less restoration is better. ‘When you start to really paint in the losses—these days, restorers can recreate almost anything—it’s a case-by-case decision. With certain posters, it’s kosher to “cherry it out” and make it look brand new. I prefer that to being hit in the face with defects. But some collectors don’t want to put that kind of money into it, or are purists about having something repainted.
What’s your most valuable poster?
Probably the Babe Ruth. I bought it 20 years ago for $600 and now it would probably sell for at least $100,000. There are only two known copies. The other one reportedly sold at Heritage Auctions for $120,000, but then it showed up in a later auction. I always thought that in the right auction, it might sell for a quarter of a million. But I don’t want to sell it. It’s the one everyone wants to trade me for.
I have several posters in the $20,000—$30,000 range, like Thief of Baghdad, the Douglas Fairbanks’Robin Hood and Black Pirate. I have Les Enfants du Paradis, a French first panel. It’s enormous. And a great German Dietrich poster of Blonde Venus, which I think is the most beautiful image of that film. They’re all quite valuable.
What mistakes can you counsel collectors to avoid?
It’s important to do your research. A lot of people who don’t know better get stuck with later reissues, like I did with my first copy of Grand Hotel.First, look for the date down at the bottom right. It will usually say R (for “reissue”) and the date. With It Happened One Night, they reissued the 1934 film in 1937, the only difference being the mention of the Oscar. Then you look for full color. The reissues were very often a duotone. When they redid a ‘30s poster in the ‘40s, for example, they often just used two colors. But some reissues have pretty serious value. There is an R38 ofFrankenstein that is quite good, if you’re not a purist who needs the original. The R38 could be in low five figures versus low six figures for the original.
What poster are you still out there searching for?
I’m always looking for a Louise Brooks original Pandora’s Box. Let me know if you find one.
Will do. Thanks. Fc
Copyright 2005 – Forbes Collector, reprinted through the courtesy of Forbes Collector.