Value of posters doesn't always lie in movie's popularity

Terry Maurer, What's It Worth?July 13, 2014 

Movies have been a big part of the American culture since well before the introduction of sound in the 1920s.

Everyone has a favorite film and many items connected with the movies are highly collectible. In today's What's It Worth? we answer a reader's question about her colorful posters. She has quite a collection.

Q. A friend has asked our help in disposing of his collection of old movie posters. There are hundreds of them, all about the same size -- 22 by 28 inches. There are a few from the 1940s, some from the '50s, but most date to the 1960s and '70s. Some of the titles are pretty obscure -- such as Kid Rodelo and Three Tough Guys. Others are more familiar, like "Trading Places" and "The President's Analyst." What can you tell us about these? -- Amy in Kennewick

A. What you have are posters called "half sheets" by collectors. They were used inside the theater, usually in wall-mounted glass cases in the lobby. Sometimes they were for a film currently being shown; more often they promoted coming attractions.

Their larger cousins -- one sheets -- are almost double the size and were used outside the theater. One sheets usually were vertical in format, half sheets almost always horizontal.

The history of movie posters in the United States revolves around a single company -- National Screen Service. They printed and distributed almost all the posters for Hollywood studios from about 1940-84.

National started in the 1920s, making film trailers or previews of films. They gradually took control of other motion picture advertising, including posters, and had contracts with all the major studios. Almost all of Amy's posters are from National.

Some posters have illustrator art, like "Stage to Thunder Rock." It was made in 1964. As years went by, photographic images became more common on posters, sometimes in combination with illustrations. The 1961 teen beach movie, "Love in a Goldfish Bowl," is a good example.

During the 1980s, as the design of movie theaters changed from small, one screen houses to large multiplexes, the amount of advertising space available for any given movie dropped. Until then, there were many sizes of posters in use; after that, print pieces were just the one sheet size.

These half sheets are collectible; but there are several things to be aware of.

First is reproductions. Almost any movie you can name has had posters and other promotional materials copied. We used to think no one would bother to make a fake copy of a poster from an obscure film; a copy that would not sell for much. Today, we see posters for movies hardly anyone has ever heard of.

Copies -- most done by photographic reproduction -- are a bane on the market and have contributed to significant declines in values for posters and skepticism on the part of collectors. Some of the copies are so good, even experts can be fooled.

Second, condition is critical to value. Collectors seek perfection and are willing to wait for an original poster to come their way in pristine condition.

The posters in this large group have all the hallmarks of being originals. However, condition varies widely in the collection. Some are in such poor shape as to be worthless; others might command top dollar.

People collect posters mostly by movie titles. Also, the actors are important to many collectors and appealing graphics are a prime factor in values.

Neither of the films pictured here were particularly popular. "Stage to Thunder Rock" is described as "humdrum" by movie critic Leonard Maltin. Even worse, he rates "Love in a Goldfish Bowl" a "bomb" and calls it "... a worthless, boring trifle." Ouch!

And the stars don't help the values much. No one is ever going to mistake Tommy Sands for Marlon Brando. The condition of both of these posters is not too bad, although there are some pinholes and minor tears.

We have seen "Goldfish Bowl" offered for as much as $50 for an original half sheet in excellent condition and "Thunder Rock" listed for $30. More realistic prices are $15 to $25 each, perhaps less.

-- Terry K. Maurer, Tri-Cities personal property appraiser, is a member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. For possible use in a future column, direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What's It Worth? by email to tchwhatsitworth@gmail.com.

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