Collecting Vintage Magic Posters

February 21st, 2008

Charles Greene is the webmaster of MagicPosterGallery, which showcases vintage magic posters from 1890-1930 (the ‘golden age’ of magic), and is a member of our Hall of Fame.

What are vintage magic posters?

Collecting Vintage Magic Posters - Sample PosterPosters of magicians printed by the stone lithography method qualify as vintage magic posters. The stone lithography process was in it highest use during magic’s golden age, 1890 – 1930. This time saw the great masters of magic – Herrmann, Kellar, Carter the Great, Thurston, and Houdini.

Lithography was invented in Munich in 1798 by Aloys Senefelder. However, it is Jules Cheret who mastered the technique of stone lithography in the 1870’s and is credited with being the “father of modern stone lithography.” His “three stone lithographic process” allowed every color in the rainbow to be printed with as little as three stones – usually red, yellow and blue – printed in careful registration.

By the 1880’s in Paris colorful posters were the standard of promotional advertising. Stone lithography was the dominant means of mass communication. It’s no wonder that magicians, both great and small, used colorful posters to advertise their show of wonders as the process traveled from Paris to the world.

What is “Stone” lithography?

Lithography is a printing process. Aloysius Senefelder invented the process in Germany in 1796. Stone lithography involves limestone blocks, or “stones,” which are prepared by grinding and sanding the stone to a smooth surface. Limestone was used because of it’s porosity.

Once the stone ready, an artist reproduces on image on the stone. The image is drawn directly on the stone, using a grease crayon and ink. The greasy crayon and ink set up an insoluble, grease-attracting and therefore water-repelling condition in the stone wherever it is applied.

When the drawing is completed, the surface of the stone is covered with an acidified solution of gum arabic. This solution changes the undrawn areas of the stone, desensitizing those areas and making them incapable of further grease absorption.

When the stone is finally ready to be inked for printing, it is placed on a printing press. The stone is dampened with water and the areas of the stone not covered by the greasy crayon become wet, while the greasy areas of the drawing repel water and remain dry. An oily ink is then applied to the stone with a roller, adhering only to the drawing and being repelled by the wet areas of the stone.

Dampened paper is then placed on the inked stone over which a flat board is laid. Pressure is then applied by running the stone through a press under a greased, leather covered scraper which transfers the inked drawing to the paper. When the paper is removed an autographic reproduction of the original drawing as on the stone is found.

Where can vintage magic posters be found?

Vintage magic posters are very hard to find. When they are found the price is usually reflective of their scarcity. The best place to find rare vintage magic posters is in a poster gallery, poster show or public auction. Sometimes a private collector will sell a poster from their collection. If you do enough searching you’ll find posters in the most unusual places. The on-line auctions sites, such as E-bay, do have the more common posters available from time to time.

What factors affect the value of a vintage magic poster?

Some factors involved pricing a vintage magic poster include its rarity, size and condition. These factors are the same for non-magic vintage posters. One obverse difference to magic collectors is that a smaller half sheet and panel posters may be more desirable and bring a larger price because of the framing and wall space considerations. Regardless of the size or image, a poster that is improperly mounted or has extensive restoration will deeply affect the price.

The Kellar “Portrait” one sheet sells for only slightly more than the half sheet version of the same image. The larger 3 sheet Kellar “Portrait” image although the most rare, is the best value in pricing. The larger images are commonly very well priced because most people do not have the space to display them.

Other factors in pricing vintage magic posters include the performer and the printing company. Posters of Kellar, Chung Ling Soo and Servais Le Roy generally command higher prices than those of Dante, Carter and Karmi. Poster printed by the houses of Strobridge and Friedlander have higher status than those printed by Otis, National or Donaldson.

One key factor in pricing is condition of the poster. Below is a “condition key” that is used by professional poster dealers and auction houses. In using the gudie below, remember that a poor or irreversible mounting can seriously affect the poster value.

Mint (A+): Flawless with no repairs; new. No fold lines.

Fine (A): Bright colors with no paper loss and minimal repairs.

Very Good (A-/B+): Bright colors overall with minor paper loss, but expertly repaired, but not in a critical area; very light staining, dirt, fold, tears, etc., but not on the image area.

Good (B/B-): Good colors overall; some paper loss, some light staining; high-quality restoration in a few areas; folds somewhat apparent.

Fair (C): Image clear, but colors are faded; some paper loss or noticeable repairs in the image area; light staining or folds more pronounced.

Poor (D): Image not intact and evidence of significant paper replacement; very visible staining; poorly done repairs; dirt or fold obvious.

In buying or selling knowledge is the key. Learn the baseline selling price for posters and use this as your judge. Poster prices, like stocks, change with time. For an evaluation of a particular poster send a message to the docent.

How much do vintage magic posters cost?

The short answer is, “Whatever you’re willing to pay.” Nailing the current worth of vintage magic poster can be as hard as setting the value of an internet stock. Sometimes it just falls to someone’s desire to own the poster. This is reflected at auctions when the final prices seem outrageous.

Ignore the aberrations in poster pricing and you’ll be able to use general guides for pricing vintage magic posters. The ballpark for most vintage magic posters is $1,000 – $6,000, with most falling around the $2,000 range. A Kellar “Portrait” half sheet poster in mint condition might require a top level investment. A Thurston “Vanishing Whippet” might require $3,500. A George c. 1925 “Scaling Cards” one sheet poster can be found for a low $500. Condition is paramount. Restoration, paper loss, fading, and inferior backing can quickly reduce the value of a poster.

All of these posters are stone lithos, printed in the same manner. The 1894 Kellar was printed by Strobridge Lithography of Cincinnati, America’s premier litho house. The image is truly fine art. Thurston’s 1929 “Vanishing Whippet”, printed by Otis Litho of Cleveland, is also desired by auto image collectors because of the Whippet automobile that is featured on the poster. The asking price of beautiful George poster, also printed by Otis Litho, reflects its easy availability.

How do I take care of a vintage magic poster?

For long term care of posters they should be “linen-backed.” Poster paper is naturally acidic. During the process of placing a poster on linen it will be given a wash which de-acifies the poster paper. The poster will then be placed on a thin sheet of acid-free Japanese rice paper which is mounted to a canvas backing. A natural wheat paste is used as the adhesive. So a mounted poster consists of three layers. Approximate costs for mounting a one sheet poster (27″ x 41″), $75.00 – $100.00.

Once the poster is on canvas, restoration work can be done. Even posters in great condition may need a small amount of work due to fold lines, printing creases, or other small imperfections. Even bigger holes and missing sections can be “restored” by a professional. Keep in mind that the amount of restoration will affect the quality and pricing of the poster.

My poster is on canvas. Why is it called “linen-backed”?

In France at the turn on the century, 1900’s, the people started placing posters on a backing of linen. Around the world this method become know as “French Linen.” The Japanese also developed a technique for placing prints on paper. This method was favored by conservationists. Because of their light weights, neither method could address the problem of dealing with larger posters.

In New York in the late 1970’s the J. Fields studio began using heavier weight canvas and an 80lb acid free paper. Most of today’s posters are mounted in this manner. The materials used are acid-free and neutral.

The process of linen-backing and restoration should be done by a professional company.

How do I frame my posters?

Once your poster is linen-backed you should frame it and hang it on a wall. Like posters, framing is an investment. Once again, a professional should do the job. Don’t let your poster investment be destroyed by having it dry mounted!

Some recommendations for framing include hinging the poster to acid free foam, using spacers to separate the poster from the glass, and using UV plexiglas or UV glass to prevent fading. Regular glass can be used if your home windows offer UV protection.

How do I store my posters?

If you decide to not frame your poster, it can be stored. Flat, parallel with the floor, storage is best. Flat file storage systems can be found at art and office supply stores. Posters that have been linen-backed can be rolled and stored in a tube. Whether stored flat or in a tube, glassine should be placed between posters.

What are some of the printed resources about vintage magic posters?

You can learn more about posters by reading books of the subject. There are only a few books written specifically about vintage magic posters. The easiest to find is “100 Years of Magic Posters” by Charlie and Regina Reynolds. Another must have reference, although not as easily found is “Magic – A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theater” by David Price. Both of these books pop up on E-bay. Another great book is “The Magician’s Road to Fame” by Laurance Glen. This little gem contains rarely seen poster images and is written to the performers of the early 1900’s on the best way to promote their shows.

Do you have an article you’d like us to publish as a guest column in The Collectors Weekly? Let us know.

4 comments so far

  1. Matt Hanson Says:

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Matt Hanson

  2. Tammy Cartee Says:

    I think I have a original but not sure .How can I tell if my metal poster of Houdini is an original? Thanks.

  3. abubbleshooter Says:

    Exciting material, thanks for sharing them in this posting.

  4. Robert T. Dempsey Says:

    I know there used to be a collectors convention (get-together) don’t know if that still occurs or not. I used to spend a lot of time at the American Museum Of Magic and I remember Bob Lund telling me about attending such events- I remember him telling me he spoke at them periodically.

    Do these conventions or gatherings still occur? Could you tell me a little about them if they do- and when the next one will happen. Thank you for your assistance. Regards, Bob

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