Poster Collecting

Key points to consider for serious poster collectors

What is the definition of a poster?

1. a placard or bill posted or intended for posting in a public place, as for advertising.
[Origin: 1830–40; POST1 + -ER1 ]

As a poster is intended for showing in a public place, a general minimum size would be 20inches × 30inches. Much less than this, the image may be classified loosely as a print or handbill and not be professionally categorised as a poster.

General notes

  • The poster must be commissioned for a real purpose. The presentation must contain a message for communication to all. The image may be illustrative, purely text, or a combination of the two. There are no rules as to the design or layout, but it is paramount that the good or service or message communicated is authentic, is sponsored by the good/service provider and can be validated to be so.

  • There is no value (in general terms) to a poster that has been only produced with a design for its own sake either as a speculative piece (less applicable to notable designers) or a self indulgent piece of work. However, posters commercially commissioned and remaining unused, do have a collectable value, as long as they are authenticated.

  • Posters, being ephemeral by nature are sometimes difficult to collect, as images may be used solely for posting on public poster sites (or fly-posted), and hard (and often impossible) to obtain.

  • An original poster is defined as one that was printed as intended from the concept artwork. Reprints of posters, if they were arranged commercially by the commissioner at a reasonable period after the first print, are usually valid as ‘original’ posters.

  • Poster reproductions (defined by reprinting or adapting the original concept), printed at a later time, almost without exception, have no commercial value beyond the value to the purchaser at the time. It is generally unknown for reproductions to appreciate in value.

  • Oddly, it is unusual for the original artwork which is used as a basis for the poster, to be worth much more than an original poster print. The provenance of the original artwork intended as a basis for reproduction as a poster dictates the original’s market value. Exceptions to this rule may be original works by important fine artists (either commissioned or adapted for poster use) or particularly notable designers.

  • Posters, being printed on paper, are vulnerable to damage for a number of reasons; careless storage, excessive light levels, general acidic degradation (inherent in most paper stock used for printing), damp storage conditions, insect infestation and in environments of excessive temperature variation. Ideally, posters should be stored flat in acid free tissue or conservation grade melinex ‘wallets’. Storing in plastic sleeves is not advisable either as plastic contains chemicals which can emit gas causing embrittlement and yellowing. Plastic can also leach ink from paper through static.  It is not advisable to keep posters rolled, as they may crease. Under no circumstances should a poster be folded at the time of purchase. However, some commercial posters are folded at the time of printing (to facilitate storage, transport and posting by professional bill-posters). The market may make allowance for this.

  • It is quite acceptable to frame posters, but it is advisable to ensure the poster can be removed from the frame without damage, and that the glass or plastic used is treated to protect the poster from ultra violet light damage.

  • Poster collecting is a lottery. It is usual for there to be no particular interest in a poster design, even if it is commercially popular, after the design is removed from general public circulation. Almost without exception, the true value of a poster emerges (if at all) after at least 30 to 40 years of original display.

  • It is impossible to predict which posters will appreciate in value. Inevitably, the market of 30 to 40 years and beyond will decide. Fashions will always change and as posters are by nature ephemeral, so it takes judgement to collect well. However, for investment, the warning is clear – the poster market is predicated on style and/or quality of the design, fashion, event, personality (be it artist or those featured), colour, place and time. The market at the time of reassessment will decide.

Tip for collectors

  1. Buy what you like

  2. Never trim an original poster ever! – Such damage can never be reversed and has little or no value in the market place.

  3. Buy for the long haul. Posters may be valuable in the longer term because they are difficult to collect and take up space. The paper used for printing was until recent times, often of a cheap and quite rough quality (as much to allow the posting on sites – a higher quality and smooth paper does not take to pasting). Often collectors dispose of their collections as their personal circumstances change or are inherited by others unconcerned at their importance. The reason posters may become valuable is as much for their rarity as for any other reason.

  4. Try to enjoy your collection. Frame and change your posters. The beauty of artworks is, as was intended, as much for their own enjoyment as the message the poster communicated. Always remember that natural light is the enemy of posters.

  5. If you like a poster and can obtain it, do not hesitate. Sometimes copies have very limited availability.

  6. Beware of sophisticated facsimile copies. Rapid improvements in print technology now allow excellent copies to be printed. Often the paper type will indicate a copy. Such reproductions have no intrinsic value above the value of the image to the purchaser, and values are unlikely to escalate. A useful, but not infallible, way to spot a genuine lithographic poster is to hold it to the light. The image can usually be seen on the reverse because of the printing process and nature of the paper.

Notes on poster sizes

The sizing matrix of posters has its origins over 100 years ago as Railway Companies regulated the large number of differing sizes of advertising sizes posted on stations. The new sizing structure was therefore much more popular with commercial advertisers who could organise poster campaigns for a potential national coverage if needed. The commercial poster business today is organised around these old Imperial sizes.

The principal commercial poster matrix is based on 20inches by 30 inches (technically known as Double Crown size). This size is a standard for much ordinary poster advertising. Double this size is Quad Crown at 30 inches by 40 inches, and is the standard for film posters. This doubles again to 4 sheet size (note the change of terminology) which is usually the largest poster size able to be printed as a single sheet by most printers. Sizes larger than this (billboards etc.) are still based on the Double Crown sizing matrix but are produced as segments and posted as a series of pieces. Largely these sizes are not collected as they are too unmanageable, and of course, are on separate pieces of paper.

The Travel industry (especially railways) also had their own sizes. Based on 25inches x 40 inches (Double Royal being the technical paper size term). These are still the standard sizes today (perhaps with slight variations depending on the sponsor organisation) and are usually used by Railways, Shipping Companies and Airlines. The other size in this matrix is double this (Quad Royal - 40inches by 50inches) which is a standard size for transport network maps.

Where to buy new posters

It is quite difficult to find posters for sale that could be termed collectible. Outlets such as London Transport Museum sell some posters directly from Transport for London’s standard advertising campaigns, sometimes in very limited numbers. Film and Theatre posters which are sometimes available from Theatres and Cinemas are also potentially highly collectible. Carefully chosen images from Museums and Galleries which advertise exhibitions and events may also have future value. Some commercial businesses such as brewers (Guinness and Adnams are good examples) may sometimes offer posters as part of their generic advertising campaigns, and some of these can be visually of very high quality. The web offers additional opportunities for buying from companies or agencies that are anxious to market a particular product, and may produce promotional posters for sale. Prices of posters from all these sources are usually very reasonable.

Copyright issues

Copyright law is particularly complex, and different interpretations of the (various) law/s usually apply to the time the image was commissioned. In the case of current posters commissioned by Transport for London (for example), and as a result of the most recent Copyright legislation, the only rights usually purchased from Artists, designers or their Agents are for use as posters for display, and sometimes additional rights are purchased for use as leaflets or adaptations for cinematic, televisual or other multi-media use. Only rarely will rights be purchased for onward commercial usage, for example as posters for sale or for use or adaptation on other commercial product. In Transport for London’s case, this careful purchase of usage rights is designed to save money, as seldom would the sale of most posters commissioned cover the (sometimes considerable) costs of relevant rights purchase.

Where to buy historic posters

Although there are a few specialist poster dealers, the principal outlets for historic posters are Auction Houses, notably Christies, Bonham’s, Phillips and Onslows, who have periodic specialist poster sales. These are often well publicised in advance, and the national media now often carry stories about forthcoming poster sales, such is the popularity of collecting historic posters.  It is worth remembering that poster sales can generate high prices and an auction catalogue will publish expected prices. However, and as mentioned before, the price of anything is what people are prepared to pay, so the auction price of a particular poster may be very much higher than hoped, or conversely a (relative) bargain.

Another source of collectable railway posters are the big railwayana venues, especially Sheffield Railwayana Auction, Great Central Railwayana Auction (formerly Kidlington Railwayana Auction) and Gloucestershire and Warwickshire Railwayana Auction. A good web site to view these, and the myriad of other Railwayana auctions, is

EBay is now an established means of buying. However, and this is a particular issue for buyers of historic material, there is no means to check the provenance of posters and their condition. With dealers and Auction Houses, their reputation is all, and authenticity of the item is assured.