DALLAS – Collectors of horror movie posters relish that frisson of terror generated by classic monsters. Demand for rarities rules the marketplace. Possessed by specialist passion, buyers are willing to pay ever higher prices for the most sought-after titles. At the top of everyone’s wish list are the chilling horror films of the silent 1920s and early 1930s.
Late in 2014, Heritage Auctions in Dallas achieved a record price of $478,000 for a unique full-color stone litho one sheet poster for London after Midnight (1927) starring noted make-up master Lon Chaney (1883-1930) in the dual role of monster and Scotland Yard inspector. The silent moving picture is now lost, but the poster lived on. Earlier the same year, a one-sheet poster for Chaney’s 1925 The Phantom of the Opera – one of only four known – brought $203,150; that example had formerly been in the collection of actor Nicholas Cage who has made his own contributions to the horror genre.
Grey Smith, Heritage Auctions’ poster expert, knows every twist of the market: “Those early films have a classic aura. Lon Chaney’s films have special appeal because he died when he was relatively young. When sound became the vogue, a lot of posters for silent films were relegated to storage. Many were later destroyed or thrown out – there’s far greater demand than supply. So many of those important posters were snapped up by collectors years ago, whenever they came on the market. People gathered them up, and they haven’t seen the light of day ever since.”
Posters are ephemeral paper, victims of neglect, fire and the ravages of time. New discoveries come with interesting tales. The consignor of London after Midnight had inherited movie posters from a grandfather who once worked in a theater. A magnificent Style C three sheet for Frankenstein (1931) was discovered when an adventurous film buff, looking for old equipment, excavated a long-boarded up projection booth on Long Island. Originally posted on Craig’s List, the 6-foot image found its way to Heritage, where it sold for $358,500 in March 2015.
Smith explains the terminology: “A one-sheet is 27 inches x 41 inches – the size of a litho bed in that time, and the typical size that is still used in theaters today. If you turn that on edge and stacked up three of them – that’s a three sheet. When they want to print something bigger, they would combine smaller elements. They didn’t create as many and they are more fragile. Through the years, attrition of larger posters was greater.” Posters constructed of three or six lithographed elements were bulky to store; many were discarded if not used, or sections of the composition may be missing.
Heritage’s online guide to movie poster collecting lists three points that contribute to a poster’s value. There must be a demand for that particular movie title, for example, Dracula (1931) or The Mummy (1932); old posters for unremembered films are hard to sell. Graphics do matter – dramatic depictions of monsters at work created by an accomplished artist are most desirable. Finally, condition is important for any work on paper. The next cataloged Vintage Movie Posters Signature Auction will be Nov. 21-22.
Horror has remained a popular genre throughout the history of films. Collectors can focus on later eras and gather decorative selections at more affordable prices. Posters are plentiful for the popular monster and science fiction films of the 1950s and 1960s. American realist artist Reynold Brown (1917-1991) was a prolific creator of high-impact film posters. The talent he expended on promos for Ben-Hur and Spartacus was also evident in his work on monster movies, such as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), where a really large female became the threat and not the threatened. Both are up for sale in Christie’s London Nov. 5 posters auction where they carry a $9,000-$12,000 estimate, and the firm also offers movie posters in online auctions.
And if the scariest thing you ever witnessed was the pop-up monster in the Alien series, Smith advises, go with your frantically beating heart: “Alien in itself is considered a Every adult has seen the original Ridley Scott film. The advance poster for that brings $600-$800 or more – good money for a 1979 poster that assuredly will become more valuable over time. A one sheet for the Night of the Living Dead – the 1968 George Romero zombie film – brings $1,000-$1,500, if not more. Look at the images and pick out what appeals to you, the posters from your favorite films. You must collect what you love – otherwise, it’s just an investment commodity.”
Collectors entering the vintage poster field must learn to avoid replicas, reprints and downright forgeries. Buy only from reputable dealers who provide accurate descriptions of the age and condition of the example. Find a spot on the reference shelf for The Overstreet Guide to Collecting Movie Posters by Amanda Sheriff, a new publication from Gemstone on sale in November.
A prime source for movie posters of all types is LiveAuctioneers.
By KARLA KLEIN ALBERTSON