Right on the Wall

La nouvelle vogue for vintage posters

The Polish movie poster for Nocny Kowboj (Midnight Cowboy) is all stripped-down mystery and seedy: the face, the cowboy hat, all blue-black except for a pair of large, lewd red lips. It's a fine example of the exquisite graphics that have made works by Polish artists so potent and so desirable in the booming vintage-poster market.

Maybe it was the intersection of propaganda and art (a combination that has historically produced great poster art in other parts of the world) that allowed Polish graphic designers to hone their style and edge. Poland's Communist regime thought it was getting official goods; the country's artists found ways to express sedition versus ideas.

"Polish posters are very popular and quite reasonable now," says Lars Larsson, co-owner of the Chisholm Larsson Gallery in New York, the preeminent destination for Polish and other vintage foreign language posters. "But the Japanese love the clean graphics, and in a few years they'll all be gone." Larsson and his partner, Robert Chisholm, have been selling vintage posters for more than a decade. Their gallery, in the middle of Manhattan's Chelsea district, has the old-world cool of a Parisian print shop. At any given time the posters in the window and on the walls compose a kind of impromptu, unintentionally witty exhibition, with images from classic Swedish films of the twenties hanging beside depictions of delectably kitsch Soviet political posters. Chisholm and Larsson know the business, about price and condition, but for them the history and the art behind the posters is much more compelling—the real point, the clear ping of crystal.

Larsson explains, for instance, that as soon as Communism collapsed in the former Soviet Union, Americans devoured propaganda posters in their craving for a bit of Soviet style, a taste of the once forbidden. "Right now posters featuring Soviet space subjects, especially the first spaceman, Yuri Gagarin, are suddenly skyrocketing!" Larsson says. I have my eye on a movie poster titled Cosmonaut No. 2 in the U.S.A. for $700.

Chisholm and Larsson scour the world for the rarest, most graphically inventive posters. They often hunt down pieces for clients with very specific taste—say, a person looking for West Side Story in every language. But they also pursue works that catch their own interest, such as, yes, the Polish ones, but also those for films by Italian directors.

Part of the thrill is in the hunt. Larsson, offering me an espresso and a share of his peanut M&M's, demonstrated his skills when I turned up in search of an obscure movie poster starring an unknown American rock star/defector/Communist named Dean Reed ("Dean who?" most people ask). The gallery had, he said, just the poster for me. I was presented with a 1970 Italian/Spanish western film poster titled Saranda. He also knew the exact person to contact in the former East Germany, where Reed had lived, if I desired more.

Mention posters and most people think cramped stores with cluttered walls, but Chisholm Larsson presents its stock like a top auction house. Request a poster and one of the staff will disappear into a back room, bring your choice out, clip it to a giant artist's board, and leave you to sit, stand, walk around it, and appreciate the graphics to scale (many movie posters are five feet high or more). You can also view the posters on the Web or through the gallery's huge transparency collection.

The market for vintage posters is constantly on the rise, with many collectors demanding the great names: A. M. Cassandre, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Colin, and the Stenberg brothers. The latter were Soviet Constructivists of the twenties who produced the most beautiful graphics of the century, film posters that now sell for $15,000 to $25,000. Sometimes the ridiculous outstrips the sublime. An original Boris Karloff Mummy poster went for $453,500 at a 1997 Sotheby's auction, making it the most expensive ever sold. A perfect Dubonnet triptych by A. M. Cassandre, father of the Art Deco poster, is valued at $200,000. But at Chisholm Larsson, a lesser known, more stylish Cassandre poster advertising shoes goes for nine grand.

Spending more is not always the way to go. With a little guidance from Larsson and Chisholm, you would likely choose an eye-catching $1,800 Italian Citizen Kane, even knowing that the more familiar and graphically less intriguing American version sold recently for $9,400.

Vintage posters serve as a record of sorts, affordable art for people with imagination, style, curiosity, a sense of history—their own and the rest of the world's. And sometimes they can simply touch us in inexplicably personal ways. An Italian poster for Mel Brooks's original The Producers (1968) shows a cartoon of a huge woman, two little men, and the title "Per Favore, non Toccate le Vecchiette," which translates roughly as "Please Don't Touch the Little Old Ladies."

Chisholm Larsson Gallery, 145 Eighth Ave.; 212-741-1703; www.chisholm-poster.com.

Collecting Abroad

IN LONDON Scenes of the beach and British bathing beauties of the twenties and thirties, along with the delicious, evocative images produced by British Railways, are among the most sought-after posters in the UK, according to KIKI WERTH, the premier dealer of British travel posters. She suggests finding posters by such artists as Tom Purvis, Charles Pears, Laura Knight, and Fortunio Matania. Horizontal formats (40 by 50 inches) are rarer and more valuable, Werth notes, running from $5,000 to $15,000. Vertical posters (40 by 25 inches) cost from $1,500 to $5,000. Werth does not own a gallery, but you can visit her Web site or make an appointment in London. Kiki Werth, 44-207/229-7026; www.kikiwerth.com.

IN PARIS JACQUES PERIER is a collector and dealer specializing in great Art Deco posters. Among the most desirable vintage French posters, he says, are ones signed by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec ($5,000-$200,000), Jules Cheret ($1,000-$15,000), Alphonse Mucha ($3,000-$50,000), T. A. Steinlen ($3,000-$50,000), and A. M. Cassandre ($3,000-$70,000). Perier also rounds up extraordinary early aviation posters, such as those from Aeroplanes Bleriot in Paris, and the Hubert Latham flight experiments at Tempelhofer in Berlin. According to Perier, when duplicates of these two are available (less than 500 of each were printed) he sells them as well ($2,000-$20,000). Anything affiliated with the Wright brothers is, he says, incredibly valuable. Jacques Perier, 33-1/42-81-25-63; www.earlyaviation.com.

Vintage Hitchcock

"I'm married to an American agent" is the line Alfred Hitchcock fans love reciting from the director's brilliant 1946 film, Notorius. The original French poster, with sensational graphics, lives up to the movie: It's a rare piece that goes for $10,000 to $12,000, almost double the price of the American version. (In general, however, a poster from the movie's country of origin is more valuable.) I asked Lars Larsson, co-owner of the Chisholm Larsson Gallery, to cook up a collection of favorite Hitchcocks. His picks would include: the American Notorious ($6,000), a rare Spellbound three-sheet ($6,000), North by Northwest ($2,000-$3,000), To Catch a Thief ($4,000), Psycho ($2,000-$3,000), Vertigo (around $6,000), especially collectible because it's by famed artist Saul Bass, and, rarest of all, Rebecca ($10,000-$12,000).