Collecting & Preserving Vintage Posters

Collecting Vintage Posters

Vintage posters were originally designed for use as outdoor advertising throughout Europe; they began appearing in large numbers in the 1890’s and onward. Today, these original lithographs are eminently collectable, given their limited supply and appreciating value.

Posters are recognized as a genuine and desirable art form that expresses the many artistic periods from Art Nouveau through Art Deco and Modernism. They are available in a wide variety of subjects, colors, sizes, and designs. Posters are increasingly popular with both individuals and corporations and they add a perfect European accent to your home or office!

Four primary factors determine a poster’s value:

  • Rarity
  • Condition
  • Popularity of the Artist
  • Perceived Merit of Artwork

Preserving Vintage Posters

The vast majority of our collection is in excellent condition and backed by acid-free linen for protection. To preserve this investment, we highly recommend framing all posters. Here are a few suggestions.

Hinge the poster to acid-free foamcore
Use a spacer to separate the poster from the glass
Use Ultra-Voilet Plexiglas or UV glass, to prevent fading

Conservation of Vintage Posters

As you begin to acquire and collect vintage posters you need to be aware of conservation techniques. These tips will help your collection last well into the next century. Not taking the time to prevent damage now will cause many fine works to deteriorate and lose value.

The Ravages of Acid

First and foremost, vintage posters were never meant to be valuable collectibles. They were designed and printed to last for a very short time. Golden Age posters were printed on the least expensive, lowest grade and thinnest sheets of paper milled. The paper was very acidic, and, with time, it literally devours itself with the acid it continues to generate. Storage in a cool, dry place will certainly prolong the life of the poster, but over time the process known as “acid burn” will continue to devastate your treasured pieces.

What do you do to stop this “paper tumor?” You can take the pieces showing serious burn to a conservator and have it de-acidified. The conservator can apply a solvent-based solution, which will arrest the process and balance the paper. The solution is usually applied using either a spray bottle or a brush. Most of the solutions will contain an alkaline base that will further preserve the piece.

Having done that, you have taken the first step in curing the ravages of acid on paper. Depending on the condition of your poster, there are a number of steps you can take to further enhance or protect both the aesthetic and monetary value of the piece.

The majority of vintage posters have some sort of damage present. This may range from small tack holes in the corners to entire pieces or sections missing. Between these two extremes are a whole host of challenges, from wear and weakening along the folds to handwriting to tape and tape stains, to water stains and more.

A number of collectors have chosen to have restoration studios make actual cosmetic repairs to their posters. While some purists resist any attempt at altering a poster from its present state, we are of the opinion that anything that can be done to enhance the beauty or condition of a poster in ragged condition should be done. After all, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper (along with major portions of the Sistine Chapel) have been repeatedly restored to ensure continued enjoyment for future generations. If it’s good enough for those pieces, it’s certainly good enough for a vintage poster.

We are big believers that any extensive restoration should be clearly spelled out to another collector who may want to purchase a restored piece. Some restorers have gotten so good that their work is almost impossible to detect except for the most sophisticated poster aficionados. While a poster with extensive restoration certainly shouldn’t be valued the same as one that isn’t, the fact of the matter is that some very rare posters wouldn’t exist were it not for the artistic abilities of the restoration experts.

Conservation can range from acid washing (removing the yellow toning from a poster) to backing with paper or linen, which adds strength to it and stops folds from further wear and tear. Some collectors are quite happy with backing and nothing else. If one wants to display a three-sheet or six-sheet, it is necessary to have the poster backed so that the separate pieces can be joined.

Once the poster is backed the next decision is whether to have cosmetic retouching done. This may be necessary to give the appearance of a more even marriage of the sections, to conceal small holes or tears along the folds, or to restore large holes that caused part of the image to disappear.

To fill these holes, some restorers make patches from scraps of paper taken from worthless posters of the same vintage. The patch is cut to fill the missing piece, attached to the poster and lightly sanded so that there will be no difference in the elevation of the patch from the original poster. If it’s a simple part of the poster, such as a fold on an area where the background is solid, the restorer will then apply paint (either by brush or air brush) to the area to cover the flaw. If the poster is rare and valuable and the damage is extensive, the restorer may research a press book or other known specimens and recreate entire portions, following the patching method described above. All of the missing detail will then be drawn on the large patch and painted. The results, when done well, can be so good that it’s scary. But scary only from the standpoint that most people who view the finished piece wouldn’t know that the poster is not entirely original.

Once you’ve chosen either to simply have your poster backed or to have extensive restoration done, your job is not yet finished. Do you plan on displaying the piece? Will you put it on a shelf in a cool, dark place? Or will you haul it and your other pieces to shows where other collectors will paw them? While linen backing strengthens the poster, excessive handling can cause the union of paper and linen to separate. Some feel that since linen backing is a relatively new process, its effects over time haven’t had ample opportunity to be tested, and thus they hesitate to employ the process.

Another process is encapsulation, which has been employed by collectors of rare manuscripts for many years. In fact, the largest collector of rare manuscripts, our government, uses inert mylar encapsulation for the most important documents they own, including the United States Constitution.

Encapsulation is accomplished by cutting polyester (mylar) into two pieces, which are laid beneath and on top of the poster (after de-acidification and chemical stabilization), then joined at the edges and sealed. With this process there is nothing affixed to the poster; it simply floats within the enclosure. This process can be reversed at any time simply by cutting the edges of the mylar and removing the piece.

Finally, for those who want to display a poster for their viewing pleasure, I recommend framing. I’ve seen some oversize posters that are linen backed and hung from a wooden dowel. This may be attractive, but common sense dictates that smoke, dust, humidity and other damaging elements have instant access to the piece in this form. A good archival framer will use only acid-free material in your frame job. This means rag board for matting and backing. It also means that he will use a glazing (whether glass or Plexiglas) that is resistant to ultraviolet rays.

Light is one of paper’s worst enemies; by employing UV-resistant glazing, you will be able to eliminate ninety-eight percent of the damaging rays attempting to penetrate your display. Ask to see descriptive information on the glazing you choose. However, don’t become overconfident in the filtering abilities of the glazing; keep your pieces out of direct sunlight and away from windows. The less light, the better. A good archival frame job done by a knowledgeable technician is one of the surest ways to protect your poster.

We hope these tips will be helpful.

Vintage Posters