How To Make A Mint From Movie Posters

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Making a killing isn’t easy, as we know from such films as The Killing. You’re statistically more likely to be run over by a unicorn-drawn pumpkin than win the lottery, there aren’t enough hedge funds for everyone and the Walter White approach is fraught with perils. Collecting movie posters may not have you stocking your crawl space with bankrolls, but there are canny investments to be made for those with an eye for an opportunity. In 2005, for instance, a single Metropolis poster went for a record-breaking $690,000. The buyer? Rumour has it, Leonardo DiCaprio. We asked Caitlin Graham, Specialist in Pop Culture at auction house Christie’s, to share some tips for getting Leo’s attention.

Old horror movie artwork is gold in the trade, as any fule kno. If Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney feature at their despicable finest, you’ve got a winner on your hands. “There’s different factors that make a poster valuable,” explains Graham, “The title of the film and its genre, in particular. The most expensive tend to be 1930s horrors.” Universal beasties from the studio’s golden age of 1930s horrors, like Frankenstein and Dracula, are some of the most valuable. “They’re old, they’re rare and it’s unusual to find them in really good condition. They all have amazing artwork, too.” A poster for the Karloff 1931 Mummy sold for £80,750 in 1932, and Nicolas Cage was rumoured to have spent $310,000 on a Dracula. We bet it wasn’t even framed.

Gone With The Wind poster

In cinema’s early days, long before Twitter hashtags and swanky digital motion posters, eye-catching artwork was essential to get bums on seats. “Posters were meant to grab you as you walked past the cinema,” elaborates Graham, “so a successful film poster pulls you in. Classics like The Wizard Of Oz and Casablanca bring in big bucks.” Those promos were folded – note the creases in this Gone With The Wind re-release poster – and mailed from theatre to theatre. “We always expect a bit of wear and tear. It’s a miracle they’ve survived at all because they’d be pasted on billboards and outside cinemas, and just ripped off and thrown away.”

Eyes over here please. Yes, you. The National Screen Service, Hollywood’s Postman Pat, was originally set up in 1920 to get trailers into theatres, but by the 1940s it was responsible for getting all printed promotion material (posters, lobby and window cards) from cinema to cinema by post. Posters like this famous quad for The Outlaw, designed to accompany the film’s 1943 release before a later designer covered up Ms Russell’s heave-y areas, would have been printed on thin paper, folded until tiny and mailed to theatres for display. It would continue being forwarded on with the print at the end of the run. “Folds are looked down on in travel or advertising posters but it’s not an issue for film posters, because they all have them,” points out Graham. “Although if they’ve been rolled, they’re worth more.”

If real life were anything like The Goonies, there’d be a stash of classic movie posters secreted in our local multiplex – probably in a dank cave behind the pic ‘n’ mix or next to the arcades. Sadly it isn’t and there probably isn’t, although dealers have often found valuable consignments of posters in mothballed cinemas. According to the Christie’s poster expert, those are far from the strangest places historic posters have turned up. “Someone found a couple of amazing Bond posters being used as underlay under their carpet. I even heard about an American butcher who’d been using old posters to wrap meat.”

Not content with freaking out their public with terrifying visions of men with foot-long fingers and sexy lady robots from the future, German expressionist filmmakers conjured up some pretty amazing posters to advertise them. A mixture of scarcity and rare artistic genius has driven up the value of the posters of German silent cinema, so a dog-eared Ledl Bernhard of Dr. Caligari or one of Boris Bilinsky’s elegant Metropolis quads could be a golden ticket. “They’re worth a lot of money,” Graham tells Empire, “although with the internet, you don’t hear of too many treasure troves these days. Maybe there’s someone in a small town in Germany who’s hiding silent film posters from the ‘30s.”

“There are artists that are popular who have moved between film posters and other art forms,” explains Christie’s Caitlin Graham. Like Saul Bass, for instance? “He’s one of the most collectible artists. His posters for Hitchcock are just fantastic designs.” Vertigo is the top of the esteemed heap, its lissajous swirls sparking bidding wars at auctions. “That’s the poster everyone wants because it’s such a striking design: a twisting man flying through space on a bright orange poster.” If you have an original US one-sheet, and for some reason you want to sell it, expect it to go under the hammer for about £6000.

The days of a linen-backed one-sheet like Bruce here sparking a bidding war are sadly gone. The modern blockbuster is as likely to yield a digital poster as a physical promo, a development devoid of romance and a tangible end product (try plastering a JPG to the side of your Odeon). “Posters are all computer, rather than hand-designed now”, Graham points out. “They’re machine-printed on glossy paper and it’s almost impossible to tell the original from the reproduction, even for experts.” Basically, don’t expect printed one-sheets to accrue much value these days, even the Machete Kills one with the nipple cannons. She advises going straight to the source – your local cinema – and asking for posters at the end of a run, but as a rule advocates “staying away from that market”. You heard the lady!

While there probably isn’t Outlaw or Mummy money in homage posters, the occasional limited-edition print makes Christie’s minimum lot value. This Goldfinger poster by Texan artist Todd Slater, commissioned for the film’s 2007 re-release, went under the hammer earlier this year with a starting price of £800. Slater and his fellow artists at Mondo, the Alamo Drafthouse’s screen-printed poster retailer, as well as Empire collaborator Olly Moss or Black Swan poster designer La Boca, offer an affordable alternative to first-run movie promos. “It’s difficult to know how much value they’ll have in the future,” says Graham, “but I’ve definitely seen prices of Mondo [prints] increase on eBay”.

If the stars are aligned the poster for a Hollywood re-release can command big bucks; especially if the stars are, say, Humphrey Bogart or Vivien Leigh. The famous 1967 Gone With The Wind re-release poster, in which Clark Gable cradles Leigh in his arms, is “a better image” than the original according to the Christie’s expert. Like this promo for the Italian re-release of Casablanca in late 1946, its improved design enhances its value to somewhere close to that of the original. Casablanca, designed by Italian great Luigi Martinati, sold for £7000. “It’s old, it’s a known artist and it’s a fantastic image,” Graham enthuses.

You know those posters covered in quotes telling you how many Oscars they’ve won? Avoid. Posters given this kind of post-awards fillip to get a second wave of bums on seats don’t hold their value. “With the Lawrence Of Arabia poster everyone wanted the pre-Oscars version,” cautions Graham. “It’s all about first release.” A moviegoer in 1968 might have spotted this print for 2001: A Space Odyssey pasted to their street corner, and if they’d had the present of mind to pinch it and hide it under their floorboards, they’d be onto a motza now. Likewise with the platform releases so common in the ‘70s. “Martin Scorsese’s films used to start quite small [before opening wider],” she explains, “and the initial posters for those platform releases are rarer and more valuable.”

Christie’s Vintage Posters auction takes place on October 30. Visitors are welcome to peruse the auction's movie posters at Christie's London gallery between October 26 (11am to 5pm) and October 29 (9am - 5pm).

© Christie’s Images Limited 2013