5 Tips for Collecting Travel Posters

Travel captures one’s imagination, and travel posters are a graphic representation of those fancies. This TWA New York Travel Poster (1958), created by illustrator, David Klein, sold for $6,000 in November 2016.

From my 2009 Baltic travel diary:

” Helsinki: I had moose for lunch today. Not mousse, but moose. It did not taste like chicken.”

“Copenhagen: I went to Hans Christian Andersen’s house today. He wasn’t home. No fairy tales for me.”

“Amsterdam: I didn’t intend to end up in the Red-Light District…I saw an area that was bustling with activity and turned toward the commotion.”

Whenever I need a break from my routine, I savor my travel posters and revisit my memorabilia. I’m not alone in this habit. Those who have travelled long to do so again, and those who haven’t travelled, dream of doing so. In both cases, travel posters serve to inspire and/or commemorate. Elizabeth Resnick, professor of communication design at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, told the Boston Globe: “What do you put up on your walls, besides pictures of your loved ones? You put up pictures of places where you’ve traveled or aspire to go. It’s really lovely to meditate on.”

Travel captures one’s imagination, and travel posters are a graphic representation of those fancies. Whether we dream of exotic lands; foreign ports, or domestic destinations, travel transforms us. We meet new people, experience different cultures, foods, and history. Even the mode of transportation informs our experience; the point-of-view we attain on a bicycle differs from that which we garner traveling on a train, airplane, boat, or cruise ship. Best of all, when our trip ends, we have stories to tell and posters and souvenirs to inspire nostalgia for our trek.

Illustrator Carl Moos created this travel poster of Switzerland’s valley of Engadin in 1924. It sold for over $21,000 in November 2014.

It’s no wonder that travel posters have become such a popular keepsake. Syndicated columnist Dr. Lori Verderame designates travel posters as a “Hot Collectible.”  Travel posters are accessible and affordable, and offer a satisfying hobby for novice and seasoned collectors.

As with other graphic artworks, there is a wide price chasm between open-edition posters and collectible art. How do we identify collectible, graphic art travel posters and separate them from those that are simply decorative wall art?

Here are five points of connoisseurship that affect the price of travel posters:

1. Image

There are three primary image components: mode of transportation, location, and activity. When a desirable location is partnered with a popular activity and a favored mode of transportation, an image will have crossover appeal, resulting in higher demand and a higher price. The “Surf Hawaii” poster below exhibits the three elements: location (Hawaii), activity (surfing), and mode of transportation (airline). Posters depicting the activities of the “rich and famous” in exotic locations have great appeal; imagine “Ski Aspen” or “Golf St. Andrews” (Scotland). Art dealers agree that the inclusion of people in an image adds to its value.

Some of the greatest names in graphic arts were hired to produce travel posters. This psychedelic “Surf Hawaii” Continental Airlines travel poster was created by a popular icon of the 1960s, Peter Max; it sold for $582 in April 2012.

2. Artist

Some of the greatest names in graphic arts were hired to produce travel posters. Stylistic leaders such as A.M. Cassandre (Art Deco), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Post-Impressionism), Alphonse Mucha (Art Nouveau) and David Klien (Modernism) bring top-dollar in today’s poster market because their art is a skillful representation of a period. A popular icon of the 1960s, Peter Max, created the referenced “Surf Hawaii” poster. Famous names usually – but not always – result in higher prices. The image, execution, and condition must be good for a travel poster to be valuable.

3. Condition

Posters are graded on an eight-point scale, from Mint (A+) to Bad (D). The specifics of these variations can be found at PropellerProgaganda.com (an airline poster site).  Very few mint condition posters can be found. Posters were typically abused: they were posted on walls or kiosks and, when it was time to change out the advertising, they were rolled up and tossed under a counter or into a closet. Examine a poster carefully before you buy it. Crushed edges, creases, folds, stains, sun fading, tears, and repairs will all negatively impact the value of a poster.

Many collectible “fine” posters will have had some conservation and repairs made over the years. Linen backing is a sure sign that someone thought the poster was valuable enough to preserve. Such posters are usually worth further investigation.

Examine a poster carefully before you buy it. This circa 1939 travel poster promoting travel to Santa Barbara, California for/during the annual “Old Spanish Days” Festival was listed as being in “very good or better condition (B+).” It sold for $2,995 in October 2015.

4. Printing Method

For about fifty years (1880-1930) posters were printed using stone lithography. In this process, images were painted onto a smooth stone surface using waxy-oily paints. The stone surface was subsequently acid-etched, setting the image area slightly above the etched stone (an excellent video titled How to Print from a Stone by Stayf Draws can be found here). By the mid-20th Century, stone lithography had been replaced by other printing methods. Because of the difficulty of the process, stone lithographs can be quite valuable. Four-color offset printing and silkscreen printing were also used to create posters.   

5. Rarity

Posters, like other period ephemera, were meant to be used and discarded. Consequently, few original vintage posters survive (relative to the number that were printed). Although travel destinations and activities remained the same from year to year, transportation changed and required updates to advertising posters. Early aviation posters showing propeller-driven airplanes were replaced when jet engines came into use. Steamship posters were redesigned when diesel ships became commonplace. Quaint posters showing outdated modes of transportation have a singular appeal for collectors.

Although it cannot be known how many of a particular poster were printed (much less survived) the supply of a given poster at any point in time can be determined by surveying online sales sites and auctions.

Those who collect travel posters enjoy the sense of nostalgia that they provide. This New York Central System Travel Poster (1938) sold for over $10,000 in November 2014.

Those who collect travel posters enjoy the sense of nostalgia that they provide. Jack Kerouac, American novelist and author of “On the Road,” says of travel: “Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that…mountain.” To Kerouac’s comment I will add: When you do, collect the poster. You’ll be glad you did.

Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, check out Wayne’s blog at SellMoreAntiques.com.

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