Bullish on vintage posters

Unlike contemporary art which continues to be produced, old limited-edition posters make them a collector's dream.

A WEEK ago in Holland, a vintage poster designed by AM Cassandre (1901-1968) titled L'Intransigeant sold at a Van Sabben auction for 210,000 euros (S$343,600). The estimate price? Just 25,000 euros - a fraction of the final price it fetched.

Christopher Bailey, owner of Hong Kong-based posters dealer Picture This Gallery, isn't entirely surprised by the development. In recent years, the auction market has seen several vintage posters surpassing their estimates astronomically - a sign that the stage is set for a collectible craze.

Bailey's gallery, for one, has seen record sales this year. It has sold 21/2 times the number and value of posters it sold five years ago, though he declines to reveal exact figures. He says: "We've been on a roll, partly driven by growing demand and a broadening of the collector base."

Next Monday, Picture This Gallery kicks off an exhibition of rare vintage posters at ION Art Gallery. Among its most valuable are two Henri Toulouse Lautrec-designed posters priced at S$90,000 and S$125,000. Toulouse-Lautrec was a well-known Post-Impressionist painter who also created graphic advertisements for a living.

Also at the exhibition are several pre-World War II travel posters promoting Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, India and other Asian countries as tourist destinations for Western travellers. First-edition posters of classic films such as Goldfinger and Funny Face, as well as vintage posters advertising food, liquor and cigars are also featured. Mr Bailey says: "We have a number of Singapore-based clients who buy from us, and we are seeing a continued growth in poster collecting in the larger Asian region."

With prices for investment-grade vintage posters starting at S$4,000, roughly the starting price of a painting by a promising emerging artist, why collect posters instead of contemporary art?

Mr Bailey says the supply of posters is finite: "For instance, the Art Deco posters from the early part of the 20th century are already old and there is no new supply - unlike contemporary art which continues to be produced. Also, there is already an established secondary market for posters - remember when you initially invest in a poster, you are buying from the secondary market - so there is no risk of primary market activity disrupting the secondary market."

Hence, the risks of collecting posters, he argues, are presumably lower. Still, there are risks. Forgery, unexpected price fluctuations and the occasional difficulty in determining how many prints of a poster still exist are things a collector needs to keep in mind.

Similar to the way artworks are valued, a poster's value is determined by its rarity, condition, popularity of the artist, subject matter of the poster, and the perceived merit of the artwork.

Naturally, the bulk of vintage posters being traded are those produced in the West, but there is a growing interest in Asian posters. Asian posters fall into two categories - those printed in Asia, and those produced in the West with Asian themes and subjects. In the former category, posters from the 1930s and earlier printed in Japan and China featuring calendar girls or products such as soap, tobacco and medicine are highly sought-after.

In the latter category, posters printed in the West promoting Asian countries as travel destinations are extremely popular. For instance, Grolier's Ruines d'Angkor poster, issued in 1911, is one of the rarest among Asian travel posters and recently sold for US$15,000. Generally speaking, Asian travel poster prices have risen from around US$1,000 10 years ago to around US$5,000 today.

Mr Bailey notes: "Compared to Asian travel posters, beautiful posters from the same era promoting travel in the South of France or United States still command higher prices in the region of US$20,000 to US$25,000. But I think we will see a narrowing of that substantial gap. It is also worth remembering that the supply of Asian posters is much thinner than those from the West."

Also undervalued are Bruce Lee film posters. Mr Bailey says: "There is a small but growing niche of collectors for Bruce Lee posters. For the moment, these only achieve prices of a few hundred US dollars. But given the extent of the actor's popularity in Asia, this could prove to be a very undervalued area and one worth watching closely."

Mr Bailey will deliver talks on investing in vintage posters during the exhibition period.

'The Art of the Poster' by Picture This Gallery opens at ION Art Gallery, ION Shopping Mall, on Monday and runs till Dec 1. Gallery owner Christopher Bailey will conduct guided tours on Nov 27 at 3pm and Nov 29 at 11am, and will give talks on collecting and investing in posters on Nov 27, 7pm and Nov 29, 3pm

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