Most printing today happens by pressing a button. But 100 years ago it was a painstaking process of reproduction that started by hand. So when an exhibition poster sold for £5,625 at Sotheby’s last March, the above-estimate hammer price was because the artist first drew the original image onto a linoleum block. He did this in reverse, as the plate was flipped over to print, and created a new block for each colour. Of course, when it came to the auction of one of the prints some 59 years later, the final price was helped by the fact that this particular artist was Pablo Picasso and the poster a signed 1956 edition promoting his ceramics exhibition in the Côte d’Azur town of Vallauris.
From the early 1900s, linocuts (printed from an image carved into linoleum) and lithographs (printed from a stone or metal sheet) allowed every provocateur with a paintbrush to promote their work using large-format, high-impact posters. Although originally displayed on the streets, these ephemeral creations have now become investment pieces.
London’s Frederick Mulder gallery currently has a Picasso linocut for the same Vallauris exhibition for in excess of £4,000. Printed by Picasso’s long-term collaborator Hidalgo Arnéra in Vallauris itself, naïve graphic shapes are silhouetted against a multicoloured background.
“Printing location is key to a poster’s desirability,” says Vanessa Villegas, director at Denis Bloch Fine Art in Los Angeles – with France topping the list for early works. Bloch has an impressive stock of fine French examples and recently sold a Jean Cocteau poster ($2,000) for his 1955 show of pastel drawings at Galerie du Pont des Arts.
The most sought-after source is the atelier at which Fernand Mourlot started producing lithographic posters in 1923. Mourlot was well-connected in the art world, collaborating first with Pierre Bonnard, shortly followed by Henri Matisse and Joan Miró. Today, the best place to find Mourlot- printed examples (£500-£10,000) is New York’s Galerie Mourlot, run by Fernand’s grandson Eric (godson of Alexander Calder) and distributing in the UK via Tate and King & McGaw.
Property developer Clive Roberts recently bought a Picasso and a Le Corbusier print together from King & McGaw for £3,995. The Picasso is a lithograph created in 1948 for the exhibition Poteries, Fleurs, Parfums, which now hangs in his home, in a black-stained oak box frame, alongside the rest of his art collection. “It won me over for being a key piece in the artist’s history,” he says.
Exhibition prints were often made in editions of a few hundred, yet grow ever rarer as people don’t realise their value or know how to preserve them. (“Avoid signs of water damage or mould unless a piece is very rare,” says Gyr King, founder of King & McGaw.)
The pieces at Galerie Berès in Paris are rarer still. “Many of our posters are originals destined to be published but the project fell through,” says curator Ingrid Fiedler. “The painting, gouache or pastel we have is the only remaining trace.” Examples include Bonnard’s 1899 image (€100,000) promoting the Salon des Cent and a strikingly minimalist Calder design (€45,000) for his 1956 show at Rome’s Galleria dell’Obelisco. “They are super-collectable,” says Fielder. “We’ve noted a steady rise in prices over the past 10 years.”
But it’s not just French works that are in demand. A rare lithograph (price on request) by Egon Schiele for the 49th Secession exhibition in Vienna in 1918 is available through New York’s Galerie St Etienne. And Denis Bloch also explores how American and British pop artists went on to use both this medium and screenprinting to produce exhibition posters. Among those by Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Keith Haring is a Roy Lichtenstein screenprint ($3,500) advertising the 1979 Ludwig Museum show, Art of the Sixties.
Pop art, of course, is synonymous with screenprinting, with Warhol in particular using the method to create artworks with a mass-produced look. From the 1960s onwards, rotary screenprinting greatly reduced the need for manual labour, as did offset lithographs, which transfer the image to a rubber roller so it can be easily reproduced. In 1967, Atelier Mourlot opened a New York studio used by Calder, Robert Rauschenberg et al. These pop art prints are well represented at Galerie Mourlot, which has an Alex Katz poster ($600) for his 1970 portraits exhibition and a Claes Oldenburg ($350) promoting his 1968 Smithsonian show with an image of his Scissors as Monument.
The cool gloss of American modern art certainly has a very different appeal to the crafted charm of a poster by Picasso. An artist’s time and hand are what most collectors still treasure when they invest in a piece – and slowly produced pieces have that extra dash of art-historical kudos. But at both ends of the scale, as Bloch pragmatically observes, “these posters offer a way of investing in artworks by the modern masters for people who are not mega-millionaires.”