Auction Film Stars

You know that old movie poster your grandad left in the attic? It might be worth $600,000. This is the art of movie posters business.
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Long, long before downloadable trailers, Internet viral campaigns and DVD/HD/Blu-Ray extras, the poster was the only way to lure people into the cinema. Offering much more than just publicity, these wonderful pieces of art promised worlds populated by chisel-jawed heroes, swooning beauties, villages where Frankenstein lumbered with iron-footed determination and 50-foot women bestrode the world like bikini-clad behemoths.

Today these posters command huge sums at auction and are rapidly becoming the art collections of choice for a new generation that likes to spend their popcorn money on blockbuster culture. And it’s easy to understand why.

In 2005 Tony Nourmand sold a poster for the 1927 science fiction film Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang for $690,000. It’s a poster world record that endures today. The striking art deco work was created by graphic artist Hein Schulz-Neudamm and was one of only four known copies of the two-metre by one-metre poster in the world. Adding extra value was its immaculate condition. “It was the Holy Grail of posters,” Nourmand says. “Hundreds of copies would have been produced at the time and they would have been hung on billboards and then thrown away. But this one was in pristine condition and obviously never used.”

Nourmand, who now runs Reel Art Press had previously bought the poster for a London client for $200,000 in 2002. “Then in 2005 this long-time collector rang up, said he had come into some money and needed to know where the poster was. The price was settled at $690,000 and I realised we had just broken the world record. So I said do you mind if we tell the press?”

Nourmand is telling the story reclining in a classic Eames Lounge Chair in front of a table laden down with portfolios of posters. As he takes a sip of coffee, Clint Eastwood, Audrey Hepburn, Jane Fonda, Sean Connery, and just about every movie poster icon you can imagine, stare from his gallery walls.

Nourmand has always been a collector. When he was a child in Tehran at a time when “everyone knew everyone” the local cinema owner would give him posters to take home. “Every week the pictures on my bedroom wall would change,” laughs Nourmand. “One day it was Bruce Lee, the next Clint Eastwood.” After graduating from art school, he tried to make movies, got some funding from an Italian fur company and used his first credit card to buy posters “from magazine adverts, fairs, mom and pop stores”.

His film career faltered, but his expertise soon gained superstar status when he was hired by Christie’s for the company’s first film poster sale. “Christie’s backing in 1995 made the market,” Nourmand says. “With such a reputable brand, a great catalogue, 100 years of cinema, the press was incredible, it was very exciting. The market just took off. After that there were two sales a year at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s.”

Nourmand’s career flourished and with co-owner Bruce Marchant he set up The Reel Poster Gallery and in the process sold more than 1.4 million books about film poster art. His latest – through Reel Art Press – is scheduled for October and focuses on the work of Bill Gold who created every iconic poster you could imagine: East of Eden, Giant, Streetcar Named Desire, Clockwork Orange and every Clint Eastwood poster from Dirty Harry to Mystic River. Eastwood is writing the introduction.

"Offering much more than publicity, these pieces of art promised worlds populated by chisel-jawed heroes, swooning beauties, villages where Frankenstein lumbered with iron-footed determination and 50-foot women bestrode the world like bikini-clad behemoths."

“When I wrote Film Posters of the ’60s in 1996 the posters in that book had a value of nothing,” says Nourmand. “A poster of Steve McQueen’sBullitt was worth about $50 now certain styles sell for £5,000.”  But what’s the appeal? “It’s affordable art,” says Nourmand. “If you had an opportunity to buy a Jackson Pollack painting you would need a lot of money and a certain amount of understanding about the artist and why abstract expressionism is so important. If you are in front of a poster of Breakfast at Tiffany’s you either like it or you don’t.”

It’s a sentiment shared by all dealers. “The people who buy posters come from all strata of society,” says dealer Grey Smith. “It used to be thought that as generations died out, the films they watched would be forgotten. That’s just not the case. Movies have a historical and cultural resonance that transcends time.”

Smith is the Director of Vintage Movie Poster Auctions for Heritage Auction Galleries in America, a department that boasts an auction database of 97,500 poster sales including the likes of 1935 The Bride of Frankenstein (sold for $334,600) and a 1931 Dracula film poster that once belonged to actor Nicholas Cage and sold for $310,700 last year. “The economic climate may be challenging but posters are not like stocks and bonds,” Smith says. “There is a scarcity factor and when certain pieces come to auction, buyers will really make an effort. They may never see that poster again. People who collect posters really treasure the material. Collectors always gather together material that they really love whether it is a director, star or a certain graphic style.”

Iconic horror and science fiction films continually have the best movie poster currency, while culturally significant films featuring, say, Douglas Fairbanks, Audrey Hepburn, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, James Dean or Marilyn Monroe (or movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock) are always in demand.

Smith, who worked in the movie business himself after studying film at university, started collecting from the age of 11 after being brought up on by a “TV nanny of old movies”. He says poster value can be linked to title first (“films that are universally loved, such as Casablanca are always in demand”); the graphic style of the poster (“a film may be forgotten but certain graphics or artists can drive some collectors to a frenzy”) and inevitably condition (“the difference between a poor quality Rebel Without A Cause poster and an immaculate copy can range from $500 to $3,500”). Interestingly, even some (unnamed) studios have been known to buy back posters of their most iconic productions.

The rarity factor is simply down to the fact that posters were never designed to be collected. They were printed on poor quality paper and after a film had completed its run were simply thrown away. Those stored in the 1950s were often destroyed because giant stacks of paper in public buildings were regarded as a fire risk.

Then there are other issues. Nourmand remembers how his business partner travelled across America on a mission to find lost posters in 1992. “He came across this closed cinema and after asking round, discovered it belonged to the local butcher,” he says. “When he asked this guy if there were any posters, he replied yes, but they had been using them to wrap steaks and sausages… from Casablanca to Dirty Harry.”

In an age of internet information such stories a rarer than a $420,000 Boris Karloff Mummy poster. However, Christie’s auction house in London is often a first port of call for those looking to value, buy or sell collections. The company now describes itself as the ‘only major auction house’ to offer dedicated sales.

Rachel Reilly is Christie’s Vintage Film Poster specialist. She arrives in a quiet meeting room above the company’s South Kensington salesrooms in London laden down with posters scheduled for her next sale. Movie history is soon being unrolled across the table. There’s Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and The Showgirl (estimate £500 later sold for £937); a gigantic Barbarella with Jane Fonda in all her provocative glory (£700 estimate, sold for £4,000); a kitsch looking Revenge of the Creature from 1955 (1,500 pounds estimate, hammer price £1,250) and Sean Connery in a 007 Thunderball poster wearing ungainly flippers, tight wetsuit and four unfeasibly curvaceous girls in swimming costumes (estimate £1,000 sold for £3,750).

“It used to be thought that as generations died out, the films they watched would be forgotten. That’s just not the case. Movies have a historical and cultural resonance that transcends time.”

“Yes, it’s easy to see why Bond is so popular among collectors,” laughs Reilly. “The image, even the shape of the women, are a moment in time. And you can imagine it looking very cool in a loft apartment. Posters come in great room-friendly sizes. Another reason for the popularity of film posters is that they are a very affordable form of art, great value with an acceptable entry level for the auction process. You don’t need specific expert knowledge. Do you like the film? Do you like the image? It’s an easy way to get into collecting.”

But of course, posters like The Prince and the Showgirl are really only entry-level works. Christie’s recently set new world records for a Dr No poster ($22,253), a From Russia With Love poster ($13,000), an Attack Of The 50ft Woman sheet ($23,489) and a La Dolce VitaItalian four-foglio’ was recently sold for a record $19,780.

“People always ask me what they should collect for investment purposes, but you shouldn’t look it as an investment but as something you would like your home,” says Reilly. “You’ve got to love it first and foremost. And then the normal advice applies. You should buy the best possible examples you can afford, buy from a reputable source and do as much research as possible.

There is plenty of homework to savour. Posters came in different sizes, each country produced national versions and by the 1970s print runs increased dramatically. Issues of rarity, condition, film star and images that were withdrawn are important considerations. For instance one version of a poster by artist Tom Chantrell for the comedy film Carry On Spying mocked the 007 style of From Russia With Love a little too closely with its, erm, provocative portrayal of the gun that belonged to spy Kenneth Williams as ‘O-ooh!’ Its rarity value was assured when legal threats by Bond producer Albert Broccoli forced it to be withdrawn.

As an artist Chantrell is fascinating. It is estimated he created 7,000 posters during his lifetime at the rate of about three a week. When he died at the age of 84 in 2001, an obituary in The Guardian revealed he rarely saw the films he was paid to illustrate considering “this a waste of time”. Instead he used a few stills, an overview of the script and, if really necessary, the help of his family. When he painted the original poster for Star Wars in 1977, his wife posed as Princess Leia in their garden with a plastic sword.

Back at Christie’s, Reilly admits to a love of posters that accompany a genre known as ‘exploitation’ films. These could come in any decade or style as long as there was plenty of sensational advertising such as Blonde Bait (featuring a sexy woman and a tagline ‘I don’t need a gun to get a man’). In many respects they were the ultimate act of salesmanship often presenting a film of cinematic excitement that could never match the expectations promised by the poster.

“Often exploitation films were masquerading as having some form of social responsibility,” Reilly says. “But in reality they were designed to titillate people, like a tabloid expose. I like the irony. Many of these films were totally unwatchable. It’s interesting that the posters have survived long after the film has been forgotten.”

Now that’s show business.

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