Collecting Basics, part 3

This is Part Three in a series by Kirby McDaniel of MovieArt for Jon Warren's "Movie Poster Guide". It is reproduced here as a service to collectors with Jon's permission. Click here for Part Four.

Condition and Returns

Questions of condition are basic to movie poster collecting. People describe condition differently. I'm not going to try to define labels like "very fine", "good", "near mint" etc. The fact is: What is very fine to one person may be only very good to another. A poster described casually as being in good condition may be very fine to you.  The best way to assure that the poster is in the condition you require is to see it. The second best way to deal with someone who has a reputation for being fair. A fair person knows that condition is a factor. Ask the person to describe a poster to you in detail. Is there any paper loss? Are there any tears or fold separations? Are there stains or watermarks? Are there any marks or writing or imprintations on the poster? Is the paper brittle? These are the issues to discuss to assure getting a poster in a condition that you can live with.  If you order a poster by mail-order,  you should be able to return it within a reasonable period if the condition doesn't satisfy you. If the seller says he won't tolerate a return, you have no one but yourself to blame if you don't like the condition of a poster when you get it.  MovieArt has a reasonable and fair return policy. You should expect the same from anyone from whom you buy a poster.  Many concerns about condition can be alleviated by simply dealing with someone who understands your requirements and offers you full money back satisfaction.  MovieArt does not generally refund out of pocket postage charges.  Shipping has become expensive and we feel that offering a full refund of the poster price is fair.


An entire article longer than this one could be written about poster restoration. Restoration is the attempt to upgrade and improve the condition of a poster through paper conservancy techniques. A good paper conservator is a skilled worker, an artisan. He attempts to extend the life of a poster by:

  • washing and removing acids and pollutants from the paper.
  • strengthening and improving the appearance of the paper through special mounting techniques.
  • if needed, cosmetizing defects in a poster by overpainting areas which may be missing.

Restoration can improve the looks of most posters, but there are limits to what can be achieved. If a poster has a hole in it, it has a hole it. You can cosmetize that defect, but but only by paper replacement.  If a poster has border tears, separations, or holes where the paper has been bent back, so that, in effect, there is a semicircular tear, a restoration is possible. There are some great posters of which the only known copy or copies have restorations. Thus there is a legitimate time and place for restoration, but, restoration is costly - and thus restoring a poster should be cost-effective to be considered. A word of warning: not everyone who says he does paper conservation is necessarily good at it. You usually get what you pay for, and fees for restoration can run from the bargain-basement to very, very, expensive. Never entrust a valuable poster to anyone for restoration unless you have satisfied yourself that the restorer is experienced, has a good reputation and can give you a realistic estimate as to what the restoration will cost.  Undoing a bad restoration can triple the cost and is sometimes impossible. Get some knowledge yourself and get a good recommendation. This is where knowing a reliable dealer can help, because dealers are often valued clients of restorers.

Notes on scarcity

Considering all the films ever made, there are perhaps a few million movie posters extant.   Narrowing this field to specific titles or actors, the field shrinks considerably. In relation to the potential market for them, they are scarce.  There is a limited number of original authentic real movie posters for a particular film.  For some films this may be in the hundreds or even thousands.  For others only a few or maybe even only one copy exists.  What is it that makes them collectible?

Movie posters were never intended for distribution to the general public. They were intended to go the exhibitors where the general public would see them and be moved to see the films they advertised. Their desirability as collector's items has ever been enhanced by this one simple fact: they were not printed and sold to the public at large. Unlike many other areas of paper collectibles which were originally intended for mass consumption, movie posters were not. A limited number were printed.

Exactly how many one sheets? How many three sheets, etc?  It is impossible to say, with absolute accuracy. This would have varied with the film and its anticipated distribution. In general, there were fewer of the larger posters printed than smaller ones. (This gives birth to the theory that a three sheet should be worth so many times the value of a one sheet, and a six sheet twice the value of a three sheet etc. This is a theory to which I do not personally subscribe- certainly not in every case. You may take this into account, but I think we must look more to the merits of a given poster in a given size to determine it's desirability - not merely its size nor its scarcity. Factors such as these will contribute to driving the desirability factor and value (and thus the price) of a poster, but not determine them. Printing runs for every size poster were, indeed, limited. A specified number of posters in each size were ordered to be printed  when a film was readied for it's initial release. Rarely were posters reprinted unless a film was reissued or re-released.

Originals, reissues, reproductions, fakes

A poster is said to be an original poster for a film when it is known to have been printed and distributed concurrent with the first release of the film.  Most authentic movie posters are original release posters, but many films have been re-released over the years and special posters were made for those subsequent releases. Many posters will have a National Screen Service service number in the right (usually) bottom border area of the poster, if the film was issued during the years in which NSS was the distribution facility for movie posters. (1941 to ????) Such a number might read, for example, 57-128. This configuration of numbers means that the poster was made for distribution in the year 1957 and that in that year said poster was for the 128th film that NSS had serviced for the studios. A poster which has a number configured like this may reasonably be construed to be an original poster from a film released in the year 1957, although rarely you will find films copyrighted in the year previous or following the year on the poster screen service number. Keep in mind that these numbers were not invented for the convenience of poster collectors but to assist in the day to day operations of what was a working business. So this numbering system may be regarded as generally correct, but not absolutely correct. Some posters may have no date at all printed on them. If you are concerned about the originality of a poster and there is no date, remember a pressbook for the film will probably show the poster, if you can find one. Or ask for the advice of a dealer or a trusted collector.

Roadshow or limited engagement films often had posters which were printed and distributed specially, not coming to the exhibitors from the normal National Screen Service channels, but directly from the studios or other subcontractors. These are posters for films which were popular in the heyday of reserved seat engagements from 1952 - 1967: This is Cinerama, Around the World in Eighty Days, Oklahoma!, Ben Hur, Spartacus, Cleopatra, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music, just to name a few. These roadshow posters are becoming increasingly collected and are considered the most original posters on these titles.

Films which were thought to have residual life in them at the boxoffice were sometimes re-released by the studios years after their first release. Certain films were re-released or reissued several times. Posters for films which were re-released were printed and they are referred to as reissue posters. These reissue posters are real movie posters in every sense, but they are simply made for the re-release, not original release of a film. They were usually marked with a "r" in the lower border area near the National Screen Service service number. For example, a reissue poster for West Side Story , re-released in 1968 will have R 68 on the poster. These posters may have used the same designs as the original posters or entirely new ones, but the r" designation indicates that the poster was intended for a film that was being re-released. That is why such posters will sometimes have copy to the effect that the film may be enjoyed again and again, or will, in some way clue the public that the film is not a new one. This was essentially a truth in advertising technique; after all, films were as ubiquitous as TV programs and the established producers did want to be seen as passing off old films as new ones to an unsuspecting public.

A reissue poster is not to be confused with a reproduction poster. A reproduction poster is merely a reproduction of a real poster, usually an original. Some movie posters have been reproduced by poster manufacturers for mass marketing.

A poster producer merely takes a photograph of an old poster and reproduces it on poster stock. Several reproductions of posters from the thirties were done in the big nostalgia crazes of the sixties and seventies. These reproduction posters are not now all that common, and they usually are of films like The Wizard of Oz or Casablanca , where there is a mass market appeal. Reproduction posters rarely adhere to the standard movie poster sizes and their offsize nature and the presence of the name of the poster printer, such as Portal Publications, etc., will be easy clues that the poster is a reproduction. Of the tens of thousands of films made in the twentieth century, only small few have ever had their posters reproduced for mass marketing. There have been and are a few concerns that have printed high grade photographic reproductions of lobby cards and posters, but these concerns advertise their products as such, and collectors will have little trouble in mistaking these posters for the real thing. Very occasionally printers may have been given access to the original plates for a poster but this is rare.

Forgeries and counterfeits are not unknown, but the incidents of this are, in my opinion, uncommon enough not to present a significant worry. Where there is money there can also be chicanery. Beware of what is too good to be true. If you have doubts about an item, you should seek the advice of a good dealer or a trusted collector. They should be able to tell you if a poster is original, reissue, a reproduction or a phony.

A very short history lesson

Original movie posters have for some years interested collectors. These collectors were often people, usually men (but now we are seeing a healthy interest from women, too), who were big movie fans. Many had worked in the exhibition business, as ad men, theater owners, projectionists, distributors. They had a nostalgia for this material and a knowledge of where these posters could be found: in the old National Screen Service branches and the independently run poster exchanges which existed around the country. They formed the nexus of poster collecting. Some acquired posters in bulk and rewarehoused them. Others simply approached the exchanges and asked if they might buy this or that. They begin to trade with each other. Soon they were getting together at shows and confabs, trading in both posters and actual films. The early conventions happened in the later sixties, but by the seventies, film and posters conventions or shows , were common in the big cities. Stores which specialized in selling movie posters, books and memorabilia began to spring up across the country. Collector's magazines, like The Big Reel and Movie Collector's World began to publish, and it was through publications like these that collectors began to know each other, correspond, and trade. The moment that the first movie poster was sold for a profit, the movie poster dealer was born. The mail order dealer became the chief outlet for much of the trading that was done for many years. Some of the dealers that were there in the beginning are still in business. One publication, The Movie Poster Price Database, lists almost one hundred such dealers in the U.S. alone. In the late 1980s, major auctions of film posters began to be common. When the major auctioneers like Christie's and Sotheby's have made time in their schedules for film poster auctions, it indicates a wider acceptance of these posters as legitimate collectibles. A record of auction prices realized is published by the several auction houses themselves and in such publications as this one and The Movie Poster Price Database. New publications and fanzines come onto the market every year.

This is Part Three in a series by Kirby McDaniel of MovieArt for Jon Warren's "Movie Poster Guide". It is reproduced here as a service to collectors with Jon's permission. Click here for Part Four.