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Off the wall, under the hammer

Coming soon to Christie's: Europe's biggest ever film poster auction. If you want vintage, it's here. If you want to flog Abba - The Movie, stay home. By Sheila Johnston
Next Thursday, Christie's will hold an auction of 278 film posters which, it claims, is the largest and most important ever staged in Europe. Drawn substantially from the private collection of the singer Mel Torm, many are for Hollywood movies of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, reflecting Torm's main interests, but there are also numerous rarities and oddities: Louise Brooks having her famous bob trimmed on a Swedish poster for A Social Celebrity; an elegant design for Chinatown by the illustrator Robert Amsel; some politically very incorrect posters for black movies from the silent era; and the French poster for The Last Outlaw, which charmingly misspells its star as Garry Cooper.

Britain is slimly represented (although there are some fine Ealing pieces, and rare original posters for Lady Hamilton, Lawrence of Arabia and Oliver Twist). According to Tony Nourmand, Christie's consultant on film posters, paper shortages in this country meant that posters were often recycled: for instance, none survive from Hitchcock's early period.

The most expensive item in the sale, with an estimated value of £12,000 to £17,000, is Lot 278: a 1924 film called Alice's Spooky Adventure. Walt Disney, then aged 22, animated the movie personally; shortly thereafter he gave up drawing. The poster artwork is by Ub Iwerks, who later designed Mickey Mouse. This, the sole known copy, was in the private collection of Virginia Davis (the little girl who played Alice) for almost 70 years. If the price on Alice's head seems a shade steep, it's still a snip compared to the poster for the 1931 version of Frankenstein which sold 18 months ago for a record $198,000.

Film ephemera represent a growing, but highly selective market: the yellowing and dog-eared poster on your bedroom wall is unlikely to be worth a small fortune. "People offer us hundreds of thousands of posters a week, but good material is really, really scarce," Nourmand says. "We get maybe 10 phone calls a day for people wanting to sell King Kong posters. Invariably it's one of the reprints from the Seventies." The real thing fetched $110,000 last December.

Nourmand also politely declines the many offers of Abba - The Movie that come his way, although he throws out a crumb of hope. "I'm sure it will be in demand one day." His priorities in accepting material are the poster's rarity, design and condition, the celebrity of the artist and, last but not least, the status of the film itself. "Posters for Quest for Fire, The Eye of the Needle and Victor Victoria come up in mass quantities. Unfortunately they're not worth anything."

Most items in next week's auction are for films of a respectable vintage; the youngest is for The Terminator (1984). But (for those interested in future investments) Tarantino fever is already bumping up the market value of posters for his movies: "It's quite hard to get an original [as opposed to the reprint] of Reservoir Dogs," Nourmand says. "And I'm sure the different Pulp Fiction posters will soon be rare. The Gate Cinema was selling them at about £15 a set and ran out within a week."

n Tony Nourmand can be contacted through Christie's South Kensington, 85 Old Brompton Rd, London SW7 3LD. The auction (ref EPH 6778) will be held next Thursday at 2.00pm