Posters and prints enjoy a number of obvious similarities. For example, both are multiples, which simply means that more than one version of the image exists, and posters and prints are often produced using the exact same techniques. In the case of a poster, though, the edition size is not necessarily fixed or even documented. To make matters more complicated, some of the earliest fine-art etchings and woodblock prints were produced in what are sometimes called “open editions.” Today, however, prints are typically signed and numbered, which is the main reason why prints tend to be more highly valued than posters.
One important difference between the two categories is that many printmaking techniques go back much further than poster technologies such as lithography, which only dates to the late 18th century. Historians believe that woodcutting probably originated in China around the early 9th century. By the 15th century the German engraver Albrecht Dürer was using this ancient technique to create prints of incredible detail.
The rise in advertising during the Victorian Era spurred inventions such as the four-color lithograph, which was used to produce, among other things, appealing images for advertisers. In 1867, Jules Cheret, inspired—perhaps ironically—by Japanese woodcuts, used the newly-developed system to combine text and images into a poster. Soon, European artists like Alphonse Mucha and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec were creating posters combining Art Nouveau aesthetics with easily understandable sales pitches.
American artist Maxfield Parrish used printing techniques to create multiples of his paintings, including “Dreaming,” “Stars,” and “New Moon.” His work was sought out by the fine-art crowd as well as advertisers, who used his blue-hued imagery of beautiful female figures posed in romantic landscapes to sell everything from soap to soda pop.
Throughout the 20th century, fine artists produced limited-edition prints that were often variations of subject matter they focused on in their paintings. The great prewar narrative painter Thomas Hart Benton made both paintings of rural American life as well as lithographs of the same. By the 1960s, artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were giving equal attention to their prints, if not more.
In parallel, advertisers were producing some of the most sought-after posters of the century, from James Montgomery Flagg’s recruiting lithographs printed in 1917 or Universal Studios’s horror-movie posters from the 1930s. Other collectible posters from the century include political, sports, circus, aviation, and railroad posters.
By the 1960s, music posters were becoming an international phenomenon. In London, Michael English and Nigel Waymouth, working as Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, produced psychedelic updates of Art Nouveau posters for Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who. In Boston, the owners of a club called Boston Tea Party tended to take a clean, graphic approach to publicize concerts by everyone from local heroes J. Geils Band to New York’s Velvet Underground. Detroit had the Grande Ballroom, whose resident poster artist was Gary Grimshaw and house band was the MC5. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Dahlgren made posters for a club called the Kaleidoscope, whose posters were always circular...
The U.S. city that’s best known for vintage rock posters, though, is San Francisco. A combination of multiple music venues and lots of talented artists was the catalyst for the vibrant scene. Over at the Avalon Ballroom, Chet Helms hired Wes Wilson, followed by Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley, to make posters for shows featuring The Blues Project, Captain Beefheart, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Grateful Dead.
Over at Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium, artist Wes Wilson created posters that helped define the psychedelic lettering style of the day. Another influential artist associated with the San Francisco scene was Rick Griffin, whose February 1968 "Flying Eyeball" poster (BG105) for Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall, and Albert King is an icon of the art form.
What makes music posters so interesting to collectors today is that they have once again blurred the line between posters and prints. Many contemporary music posters, particularly those created for rock bands such as Phish, Pearl Jam, and Dave Matthews, are produced in signed and numbered editions, just like a fine-art print. Some artists such as Jim Pollock, Emek, and Chuck Sperry will see posters they have created for a particular concert appear on eBay the morning after the show for double or triple the price.
This trend continues even with artists whose poster-like prints don’t advertise anything at all. For example, Shepard Fairey, who gained widespread acclaim for the poster he created for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, recently produced a limited-edition print of Muhammad Ali that has proven to be quite popular with collectors.
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Recent News: Posters and Prints
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Michael Moore on Death Threats, His New Doc and America's FutureRollingStone.com, February 10th
A framed poster from the Quebec City stop on Bob Dylan's 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue hangs on the wall (Moore saw the show when he was 21); another vintage poster advertises Bruce Springsteen's legendary 1975 stand at New York's Bottom Line...Read more
Ready for Julián?Politico, January 22nd
Sitting in his office on the tenth floor of the particularly brutal Brutalist HUD headquarters in Southwest D.C., a vintage poster from his mother's 1970s San Antonio city council run framed on the wall behind him (having her on the campaign trail...Read more
Kobe Bryant Threw Down A Vintage Poster Dunk On The RocketsUPROXX, December 18th
The Los Angeles Lakers may have lost to the Houston Rockets on Thursday night, but Lakers fans still got their money's worth thanks to this throwback of a throwdown from none other than Kobe Bryant himself. Bryant's play has taken a noticeable turn for...Read more
Rare Vintage 'Star Wars' Posters Make the Perfect Holiday GiftObserver, December 12th
If you're looking for something to get a true connoisseur, Heritage Auctions' weekly online vintage poster sale, which is taking bids through Sunday, December 13, features 40 Star Wars-themed lots in anticipation of the forthcoming film (several of the...Read more
The International Vintage Poster Fair, November 14-15Fine Books & Collections Magazine, September 11th
NEW YORK CITY—The International Vintage Poster Fair is returning to New York City for its 26th anniversary with an exciting new location, Pier 94, between 12th Ave. and 55th St. This year's Poster Fair will be a featured section of the Pier Antique...Read more
This weekend: 'Bride of Frankenstein' and vintage poster saleAdvocate Media, August 26th
Starting this Friday, Aug. 28, and running through Sept. 26 is “Bride of Frankenstein: The Musical” at Pocket Sandwich Theater. It has monsters singing, dancing and telling jokes. What more do you need? Pocket Sandwich Theater is located at 5400 E...Read more
Affordable collectibles: vintage poster show in Hong KongSouth China Morning Post (subscription), August 14th
Bailey says it's not surprising vintage poster art is becoming increasingly popular and collectible. “They are now highly sought after by collectors and investors and the rarer and most highly prized posters are becoming increasingly expensive and...Read more
Art Nouveau, Travel Scenes, and War Posters at Swann Galleries' Vintage Poster ...Fine Books & Collections Magazine, July 6th
New York—Summer is in full swing and bright images are out in force for Swann Galleries' largest August auction of Vintage Posters to date. With almost 700 lots, the two-part auction scheduled for August 5 will feature several vivid and vivacious...Read more