If Fifi goes walkabout or Tiddles AWOL, it's the first step towards an artistic triumph for its owner. With their combination of naive draughtsmans hip and high emotional content, lost pet posters are the latest prized collectable. John Windsor reports
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The Independent Culture
NOW you know why Tiddles was never found. A collector of "lost pet" posters snatched your lovingly drafted example from the lamp post where you'd taped it, and fed it into an international fax network for pet poster enthusiasts.

Lost pet posters must rank with airline sick- bags as one of the barmiest collectables on record. I spoke to four collectors. No, not one of them was certified insane; none of them was an animal fetishist and only one was obsessed with cats. All were well-heeled males in their forties, and all were designers, mostly in graphics.

Piet Schreuders, a 45-year-old graphic designer for magazines, books and CDs who lives in Amsterdam, is the only one who could be said to be, well, funny about pets. His Dutch-language magazine De Poezenkrant ("The Cats Journal") devoted an entire issue to lost cat posters. He explained: "Graphic designers are naturally attracted to lost pet posters because of their interest in vernacular or 'street' design".

His friends - the 45-year-old Dutch graphic designer Rick Vermeulen and the American Tucker Viemeister, a 47-year-old industrial designer - fax their choicest finds to one another between their offices in Amsterdam and New York. Between them, they own hundreds of these charmingly naive artworks.

Mr Vermeulen described to me how he and Mr Viemeister had appropriated their first lost pet poster, in New York. They had been on their way, perfectly sober, to a dinner party on the Lower East Side. "There was this poster of a lost cat, stapled to a tree. We'd never seen such a sad- looking cat and could not resist picking it off". The cat image became part of the packaging for the "Sardine Light" designed by Mr Viemeister. It has a spiral wire base like a sardine skeleton and a paper fish-head as a shade.

"We did feel bad about taking the poster," Mr Vermeulen confessed. "The owner had obviously been to a lot of trouble drawing it up. But then we began taking more of them. Yes, I suppose you could say we became hardened."

Part of the attraction of these posters, he explains, is that the owners of lost pets may never have done any graphic art in their lives. "But their loss forces them to start," he says. "It's such a personal thing. A single A4 sheet is all they have to express their sadness, how they remember their pet and how they think others can recognise it. Some of the lettering doesn't quite fit the line, but who cares? It's all about communication rather than quality art."

Among his favourites is the poster: "MOUNTAIN LION ALERT! 4 cats missing; 3 carcasses found" - a sensational eyecatcher. Then there is the professional- looking "STANFORD LOST" with a competent original ink-and-gouache portrait of a handsome marmalade cat. "That's from Santa Monica," Mr Vermeulen says. "A lot of artists live there. Can you imagine hand-painting 20 or 30 of those? Amazing. Somebody must have loved that cat."

The Vermeulen-Viemeister art collection includes a contact-lettering poster for Stumpy, the tail-less fluffy yellow cat ("We're heartsick. He responds to a 'hog call"'); a poster for a chocolate-coloured pit bull terrier ($1,000 reward, "No questions asked"); one for Pepe the Macaw ("All he knows how to say is Hello, over and over again .. He's often not friendly, but we love him"); and another for a 36in-long green and brown lizard, apparently with no endearing features worth advertising.

Mr Viemeister finds such posters irresistible for similar reasons to those of Mr Vermeulen: "The message is always the same. The fascination lies in the combination of uneducated graphics and a singular image in order to put it over. All owners want is the return of their pet".

Viemeister has managed to overcome the embarrassment of being seen removing posters. "Some people might think: 'What a slob! Now they'll never find that cat'. But I'm sure some people say 'Look! They're taking their poster down. I'm so glad they've found their cat'." Further solace for the poster pilferer is to be found in De Poezenkrant, in which Mr Schreuders' interviews with the owners of 13 cats whose posters he had pinched reveals that eight of them were reunited with their loved ones.

Among them was the seemingly indestructible Fifi. Her daredevil trick was to jump from the balcony of her owner's fourth-storey flat in Amsterdam on to a neighbour's balcony on the same floor. One day, she fell. Her distraught owner asked the ground-floor hairdresser: "Did you see a cat sail past'?" "Yes," came the reply. "It bounced off the awning, landed on a passer-by, then headed for the canal."

Posters for Fifi were posted along the canal banks. Two-and-a-half weeks later, the proprietor of a radio store, following a sighting of something cat-like, spotted cat droppings. After virtually taking the store apart, Fifi was found, emaciated, dusty but otherwise unharmed, cowering under a wooden pallet. Undeterred, she resumed her death-defying antics, lost her footing again, and ended up with a broken jaw and paw. The magazine does not record whether that put an end to her acrobatic career or not.

Columbus, the still-missing black-and-white cat, seems to have used up his nine lives all in one go. He was a popular character in Amsterdam, sitting on the roofs of cars, inviting passers-by to pet him. The tantalising last sign of him was his collar and name tag, attached to a parked bicycle with a flat tyre. His owner's grief echoes the familiar lament for missing persons: "I hate the insecurity of it all. If only we knew for certain. Whenever I see a black-and- white cat, I always look to see whether it's him."

I have added to the collection my own lost cat poster - one that worked. When my tabby, similar to Fifi, disappeared, I made up a poster using a felt-tip sketch of her that I had dashed off in a fit of inspiration after viewing the work of a neighbour who is a professional portraitist. I dropped three dozen photocopies of it down letterboxes in the area and, after a neighbour's tip-off, found the cat recovering from a shattered pelvis at an RSPCA clinic nearby. She is pawing my keyboard as I write - yet another beneficiary of amateur graphic design. !