COLLECTABLES / Coming soon to a sale near you: As the millennium approaches, a century of lost cinema art is finding a new audience. John Windsor reports

RARE Hollywood film posters have become the world's hottest collectables. Private deal prices in America have reached dollars 100,000 (pounds 68,000), having risen threefold in three years despite the recession. Speculators predict that unique historic posters will fetch dollars 250,000 - the price of a Constable or a Gainsborough - when released on to the open market.

Correctly classified, film posters are printed ephemera - throw-away scraps of everyday life. In the Thirties, the golden age of poster art, cinema managers paid 35c for them, displayed them for a week, and chucked them out.

At the root of dollar-driven film poster mania is the coming of the millennium. Matthew Schapiro, the curator of an investor-backed archive in Glastonbury, Connecticut, reputed to contain a hundred dollars 100,000 film posters, says: 'Come the year 2000, film will be seen as the artistic medium that has made most impact on 20th century culture, not just in America but throughout the world.'

For countless emigrants to America the nickelodeons of the Twenties and Thirties provided easily digested fare from which they absorbed the New World's ways. The early film moguls - Fox, Warner, Zukor - were emigrants themselves. They fed their audiences a hot-pot of romance, thrills and swank, lightly garnished with good taste. Paramount ran prestige advertisements during the Twenties, claiming that it was 'keeping the family together' while at the same time promoting titles such as Lady of the Harem.

Poster style - big, dramatic figures, garish colouring - was designed to put bums on seats. Charles Schlaifer, 20th Century Fox's advertising manager in the Forties, experimented in one town with an innovative and tasteful, but unsexy Betty Grable poster. It was a disaster. 'After that,' he said, 'we destroyed everything and went back to tits, legs and ass.'

Mr Schapiro is keeping out of sight of visitors his advance 'teaser' poster for one of the grand-daddies of horror movies, Boris Karloff's Frankenstein (1931) - a quarter million bucks' worth of Andy Warhol-style American culture. All will be revealed when he publishes illustrated books of his archive in the run-up to the year 2000. Meanwhile, he lets it be known that the poster has no credits, just a monster's face and the inscription: 'Warning] The monster is loose]'

Worthier cultural icons include Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), another quarter million-dollar blockbuster of which only two copies are known - in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and in an American private collection.

Speculative boom-and-bust is the bane of people who collect for fun. When the price of a collectable spirals beyond their pockets they are likely to dump their collections back on to the market, busting it. It happened to coins in 1982 and it seemed to be happening to film posters in America in the seven years from 1981 to 1988. Middle-aged collectors who had begged surplus posters for a few cents from the warehouses of the National Screen Service, designer and distributor of posters, were grateful to get dollars 20,000 or so for their collections. But instead of glutting, the market absorbed the lot and prices continued to rise.

Today, more than 95 per cent of film posters can still be bought for less than dollars 1,000. But American speculators remain bullish. They believe that rare posters are still underpriced in relation to comparable American collectables - baseball cards which have yielded dollars 451,000 at auction, animation cels dollars 286,000 and comic book art dollars 75,000.

Such treasures are considered rare if 50 or 100 of a kind are known. But no posters are known for perhaps 75 per cent of films made before 1945 and 90 per cent before 1935. Whoever discovers in his attic a poster for Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse's first talkie (1929), will be able to retire for life.

The 'cross-over' factor has boosted the market by luring half-a-dozen other collectors' markets into it. Film posters appeal equally to home decorators and speculators. Pete Merolo, proprietor of the 500-seat M J 's Supper Club, on Staten Island, New York, has lined his restaurant's walls with vintage Disney posters and reckons that his top 20 are worth dollars 60,000-dollars 100,000 each. He paid dollars 75,000 for a Mickey Mouse Alpine Climbers (1936) and dollars 100,000 in a part-cash, part-exchange deal for another Mickey Mouse, the Frankenstein sequel The Mad Doctor (1933).

No collection of horror, science fiction, Westerns or memorabilia of Thirties vamps is complete without crossing over into film posters. Dana Hawkes, director of Sotheby's collectables department in New York, adds that collectors of baseball cards, comic art and Disney animation cels, in search of something new, have also started bidding for them. 'It has all the energy of a fresh new market,' she says.

Cognoscenti can source film poster style to early Wild West show and circus lithography, and reel off the names of pioneer artists such as Jules Cheret, who fathered the genre in 1890. But when it comes to price, it is the film title and the star's name that counts most - exactly the same factors that put bums on seats in the first place.

Horror and animation art are the biggest attractions, which explains the high cross-over value of Mr Merolo's Mickey Mouse Frankenstein. A big, three-sheet poster of King Kong (1933) fetched pounds 57,200 at Christie's New York in December 1991, an auction record for a film poster which lasted 18 months.

As for stars: 'in' are Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. 'Out' are more recent names: Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Elvis Presley. The only Presley of significant value, Jailhouse Rock (1956), is worth just dollars 500-dollars 750. You can pick up a run- of-the mill late Presley for dollars 35. Hepburn's Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) can make dollars 800 but her prices go as low as dollars 50. Kelly's High Society (1956) with Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby is still worth only dollars 150.

The big auction houses came late into the film poster game, hiring collector-consultants to show them the way. But Christie's four New York sales since 1990 have all been 100 per cent sell-outs, raising nearly dollars 4m. The record auction price for a film poster - dollars 77,000, paid in May - is held by neither Sotheby's nor Christie's, but by the relatively obscure Vintage Poster Art of Cleveland, Ohio. It was paid for Dracula (1931), starring Bela Lugosi, the first of the big Thirties horror movies. Only one other copy of the sepia poster is known.

Meanwhile, about a dozen small American auction houses are bumping up the number of their sales from one a year to three. More and more posters have been tempted into auction, with the result that, in the past year, middle- market prices have actually sagged. The Movie Poster Price Database in which John Kisch, a New York collector, publishes up to 20,000 private and auction transactions every January and August, shows that Bogart's classic Casablanca (1943) in standard one-sheet size sold at auction four times in January this year at prices ranging from a top dollars 5,500 to a bargain dollars 2,500. Back in 1991 the only copy to appear at auction fetched pounds 5,200.

Such erratic prices reveal an 'imperfect' market in which information about market values is a scarce commodity. The most expensive posters, hoarded in anticipation of even bigger prices, have yet to submit to the big auction houses' public information skills. The bulk of transactions, which include a bumper mail-order trade, are private - though scarcely less hyped. A network of up to 10,000 of them communicates across America by telephone and fax. Telephone bills of dollars 500 a month are not uncommon - hardly a bank-breaker for the East Coast collector who last year parted with dollars 80,000 for Boris Karloff's The Mummy (1932), the highest cash price on record.

This December Christie's fifth sale, on the 13th, will be pitched against Sotheby's second sale only five days later. Both houses gleefully leak information about their top-priced lots, confident that the chances of both houses having a copy of the same money-spinner are slim. Christie's is trumpeting its one-sheet Charlie Chaplin The Gold Rush (1925), estimated at dollars 30,000-dollars 40,000.

The world's biggest collector of Chaplin film posters, Andrew Cohen, the Londoner who rescued Betterware, the British door-to-door household goods company, told me he was prepared to pay dollars 50,000 or more for it. He expected competition from two or three other bidders. 'This is the most collectable Chaplin,' he said 'and is going to fetch the highest Chaplin price. I know, because I'm prepared to make sure that happens.'

He has a reputation for spotting opportunities. In June he raised pounds 30m by selling 13 per cent of his and his parents' stake in Betterware. He said of film posters: 'It is a strong market which started in recession and grew in recession. When it comes out of the recession it's going to boom.'

Chaplin posters collected over the past four years and displayed in his mansion include City Lights (1931), one of only three known, for which he paid dollars 35,000 in a private deal. He paid dollars 32,000 for The Kid (1921) at Christie's New York last year.

The consignor to Christie's New York of the one-sheet The Gold Rush is Bruce Hershenson of West Plains, Missouri, Christie's own consultant in film posters. Not averse to creating a gold rush in modern times, he told me: 'If he (Mr Cohen) doesn't get this one he may never get another opportunity. For 25 years nobody had seen a copy. Even now only two are known. The other has Chaplin's moustache cut out.'

Mr Cohen is a rare bird, one of only five serious British collectors. His auction bids in New York are made for him by two British collector-dealers, Tony Nourmand, a maker of short animation films, and Bruce Marchant, a sculptor. They are the only Brits who regularly venture across the Atlantic to buy.

Transit of American buyers in the opposite direction is rare although the successful sale of over 240 film posters in the Kobal collection at Christie's South Kensington last December did attract America's biggest dealer, Jose Ma. Carpio of San Francisco. He paid the auction's top price of pounds 7,260 for seven 'black cinema' lobby cards for Hallelujah] (1929), which had an all-black cast and was shown in segregated cinemas in the United States.

Mr Kisch of the Movie Poster Price Database has the biggest collection of black cinema posters. He is sending 200 of them for display at the National Film Theatre's season of black cinema in London in February. They may do something to shift British taste in posters towards Hollywood. To the British, posters have hitherto meant Toulouse Lautrec, Mucha and British Railways. The record auction price for a British poster is pounds 68,200, paid at Christie's South Kensington in February for an 1895 Charles Rennie Mackintosh of an Art Nouveau female figure. Hardly a King Kong - but at least the price was right.

The next general poster sale will be at Christie's South Kensington on 1 October. A useful book is 'Reel Art' by Stephen Rebello & Richard Allen (Abbeville Press, New York, 1988).

(Photographs omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin