Vintage posters a viable alternative

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 September, 2008, 12:00am

The voluptuous red-headed siren reaches out of the water holding a pneumatic tyre above her head and graces the onlooker with a beautiful smile. Like a halo, it adds an altogether angelic air to this vintage poster advertising bicycle tyres in 1910.

Interestingly, while in this generation obesity levels are on the up but models are prized at a skinny size zero, in 1910 artists painted their ladies with a fuller figure.

'That's how the women were back then,' said Chris Bailey, vintage poster collector and the founder of Picture This Gallery.

He saw a hole in the Asia market seven years ago for film posters, vintage posters advertising products and travel posters. 'Vintage posters date back to the late 1880s and early 1890s,' said Mr Bailey. 'The posters in France would be colour sheets promoting events and destinations. [Henri de] Toulouse-Lautrec specialised in cabarets, bars, restaurants and retail businesses. Posters of that era often show shops and bicycle retailers.'

Mr Bailey has a collection of 80 or so Hong Kong travel posters, including two or three items which have not been seen elsewhere. All of the posters are unique - not prints because he said there was not much money to be made in those.

The most expensive poster ever sold was in November 2005. A poster of Fritz Lang's iconic movie Metropolis sold for US$690,000 in the United States to an anonymous buyer. There are only four known posters like this in existence and the other three are already in institutions, said Bailey.

Mr Bailey's two galleries in Central also have a selection of travel books from the region and other paraphernalia including luggage tags. The posters depict a more romantic era in travel with paintings showing the liners that set sail from Southampton in southern England, and early seaplanes. These multicoloured illustrations existed until the 1960s when photography largely took over.

'I lose interest in posters around the 1960s,' said Mr Bailey, who prefers the earlier art examples.

He said American company United Airlines recently reverted to illustrated posters to advertise some of its destinations. 'They felt that every original photograph of those destinations had been done,' he said, 'so they hooked into the nostalgia of a past era.'

Early travel posters to Asia show ubiquitous rickshaws, fans for that traditional 'Oriental' look that could be used for Rangoon, Shanghai and Hong Kong - for the traveller who had never been there. Why let accuracy get in the way?

'Early posters for Hong Kong show pagodas, yet [now] we don't have a single pagoda in Hong Kong,' he said. Junks also feature heavily.

At a time when the world's money markets are turbulent, posters are another form of investment. It is not a mature market but a steadily growing one in which increasingly the auction houses are taking an interest.

For many collectors, he said, it was the buzz of the chase, the obsession with getting every last item in a collection. But after that boredom could set in, the collector wanted to move on to something new, so it would be time to sell.

While the present market might mean people had less cash - at least temporarily - Mr Bailey said that posters were a good investment as more auction houses took an interest.

'Bloomsbury - which really is for books - is now dealing in posters and Sotheby's and Bonham's have regular poster sales,' he said.

Fakes - as in many other areas of collecting including watches, paintings and porcelain - are a problem, which is why collectors need to do their research and talk to experts.

Mr Bailey is happy for interested collectors to go to his galleries and have a chat about specific types of poster they are looking for.

'You have a poster issued in 1915 and it will have specific paper and inks, and that's how you tell. Two years later they might print the poster again, but there will be slight differences in the paper and ink that they use. The printer might have moved.'

Before setting up his gallery, he spent a lot of time reading books on the subject, visiting websites, going on buying trips and looking at auction catalogues.

He said those interested in starting out should buy posters they could touch and see. It was only when expertise had been built up that collectors should venture into internet buys.