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Dec 11, 2007
Poster Boy - Forbes

Dwight Cleveland, a 48-year-old Chicago real estate developer, stares
intently as a dry-cleaning squeegee steams the outermost poster from an old
movie theater display board he picked up from an antiques dealer in Duluth,
Minnesota. At least a dozen other vintage 1930s movie posters are pasted
underneath. Not even Hitchcock can rival the suspense in the steamy air as
Cleveland waits to see what will be revealed. "The '30s produced some of the
most sought-after posters," Cleveland says. "Some of the posters here could be
junk or could be worth tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. I probably
wouldn't have gone through such lengths a few years ago, but this is kind of a
crazy market."
Movie posters, once considered throwaway by-products of the film industry, 
are big business. With deep-pocketed collectors bringing a nostalgia for classic
movies and a renewed appreciation for 20th-century graphic art, posters are
fetching blockbuster prices. Just two years ago a poster for the 1927 sci-fi
classic "Metropolis" sold for $690,000, burying the half-million-dollar
price record paid for the poster from the 1932 horror flick "The
Mummy"
"There's always been a small group of movie buffs interested in this market, 
but it took a big step forward in the '90s, when eBay and then the big auction
houses [drew in] a larger audience," says Grey 
Smith, director of vintage movie poster auctions at Heritage Auction Galleries
in Dallas. "This could well be the golden age of poster collecting. We've sold
$25-million worth in the six years we've been in this business, and we're
probably not far off from the first million-dollar poster."

Morris Everett, Jr., of Kirtland, Ohio, who started collecting in 1961,
agrees. "When I first started, I'd buy sets of lobby cards [small posters
printed on card stock for inside displays] for 50 cents out of dusty boxes in
used bookstores and everyone thought I was nuts. Now a single Humphrey Bogart
card fetches as much as $6,000." Everett, who has 170,000 posters in his private
collection alone and another three million movie stills, has turned his horde
into a major image-library business and runs annual poster auctions and
conventions. "Until the '80s, I did this for fun, never thinking I'd be able to
make a living off of it," says Everett, who estimates his collection of posters
alone would fetch over $10 million. "In the years I've been collecting, movie
posters have probably outperformed gold, stamps, coins, comic books and even the
stock market."
If the size and breadth of Everett's collection makes him the Spielberg of 
poster collecting, Cleveland, with his perfectionist focus on scarcity and
quality, is its Kubrick--many of his 25,000 posters are one- of-a-kind. Having
been introduced to the hobby by a high school art teacher, Cleveland has
traveled to every continent except Antarctica to build his collection, placing
ads in magazines and newspapers around the world in a search for leads. "I've
collected poster art from all the Academy Award winners, the American Film
Institute's top 100 movies list and posters with outstanding graphics from
lesser-known films. If I can find four or five more specific items, I think my
collection will be complete." Would he stop hunting for posters then? "Probably
not."
Walking through his immaculately restored Victorian home in Chicago is like 
being sucked into a Technicolor vortex of cinematic history. Some of his walls
are literally papered over with posters, each one with a chase story worthy of
"The Maltese Falcon". There was the time he heard of a house in rural
Michigan where remodeling had turned up insulation made of old movie posters; he
appeared with a sledgehammer to join the job, resulting in one of only three
known copies of "Footlight Parade", an art deco gem, now gracing his back
hallway. Value? Cleveland estimates it as at least $10,000. Not bad for
insulation.
Two vivid Japanese posters of "The Outlaw" and "The Quiet Man" 
elicit a detective tale of tracking down an elusive collector on the streets of
Tokyo. "I knew him as a male collector here in the U.S., but he was almost
impossible to find over there--because, as it turns out, he was living a very
prominent life in Japan as a woman."
But the pride of the collection is a poster of "Casablanca," looking at 
you, kid, from the front hall. Although "Casablanca" posters are among the
most sought after, this one's a star: It's Italian and looks so vibrant you
practically want to bum a smoke off Bogie. "I took planes, trains and
automobiles to the owner's house in a remote town on Italy's heel. He didn't
want to sell, so I called him every six months begging. Finally, after ten years
of speaking on the transatlantic phone using all the Chicago Italian waiters and
barbers I could get to translate for me, he relented and sold it to me for
$4,000." Cleveland estimates the current value of the poster is $30,000 to
$40,000.
But his quests have never really been about the money. "The artist who 
designed this, Luigi Martinati, later became one of Italy's great portrait
painters," Cleveland says, gazing at the Italian "Casablanca." "Look at the
color saturation in these skin tones. Bogart never looked so good.

Cleveland's wife, Gabriela, a lawyer with the Illinois Department of
Transportation, seems bemused by her husband's obsession: "I learned from his
sister at our rehearsal dinner that he postponed a planned marriage proposal so
he could disappear to Iowa to bid on an early Mickey Mouse poster he'd heard
about in a farm auction." The white and red poster of the 1929 short "Barn
Dance" now graces the playroom. Gabriela has also resigned herself to certain
noirish aspects of the poster hunt. "On trips we've sometimes had to wait in the
middle of the night at some intersection to meet one of his contacts for a movie
poster." At one such nocturnal stop in rural Missouri, Cleveland gave $100,000
to a seller who then disappeared into the night without handing over the goods.
"That was a very long drive home," Cleveland adds.
What movie posters should investment-minded collectors acquire? "I always 
choose what I personally like, and that's worked well for me," notes Cleveland.
"There's a so-called '30-year rule' in this hobby that means that movies someone
likes when they're young and penniless are what they're going to collect when
they're old and rich. Right now James Bond posters are doing well."
"Some of the bulletproof genres for investing are 1950s sci-fi and horror 
movies because of their kitschy graphics," says Heritage Auction's Grey Smith.
"Animation one-sheets [posters made from a single sheet of paper rather than the
larger multisheets] have real lasting value--Disney and Warner Bros. issued lots
of those with great, fun graphics. I also have great belief in early silent
material. Pickford, Keaton and Chaplin are probably going to continue to
increase in value. But other than that, you have to trust your instinct. There
are people out there who would trade their grandmother for the right
poster."
The steam has loosened the outermost poster on Cleveland's board, allowing 
the squeegee operator to gingerly peel it back with a piece of rice paper.
Claudette Colbert's blond bangs and big-as-the-moon eyes come into view. Once
the whole layer is removed, Clark Gable returns the stare. We are looking at an
immaculate poster of "It Happened One Night," Frank Capra's classic that
swept the Academy Awards in 1934. Cleveland's smile is broader than Gable's.
"Bingo." He estimates that his find is worth $20,000. "But I think I have a
place for it on the stairwell wall."
For more information, visit 
wwww.learn
aboutmovieposters.com or Heritage Auction Galleries at www.ha.com


By Finn-Olaf Jones

 
   
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