Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words–and Sometimes Much More

QUESTION: My grandfather collected all types of circus posters, programs, tickets and much more. When he died in 1969, they were all given to my Father, and now I have them. Most of the items are from the 30's, 40's and 50's.  Can you give me some insight as to where I can find out their value?

ANSWER: Circus ephemera, those tickets, programs, and posters that this person mentions above, seem to be surfacing everywhere. Perhaps, it’s because people who held on to them stuffed them in drawers and closets. When they die, their family finds them and not knowing much about them, have no idea whether they’re worth anything.

Circus posters, in particular, can be worth more than just something. But like with most collectibles, condition is of prime importance.

Weeks ahead of its show date, a circus would send advance men into town to plaster posters, called “bills,” all over town. These bright-colored graphics enticed men, women, and especially children within a 50-mile radius of town to come to the show. No color was too bright, no word too big for the circus–greatest, bravest, most stupendous, world famous, exotic. These posters  promised showgoers beasts from the Far East and Africa, dare-devil aerialists, and luscious lady equestrians in glittering tights riding

Circus posters were crucial for drawing crowds to what were only one or two performances per location. Many early ads were simple woodblock prints mentioning the name of the circus, the price of admission, and a few acts.

Along with circus posters, the circus created such common concepts as marketing campaigns and the tools that go with them–junk mail and free coupons–plus the idea of “newer, bigger, and better.” Advance men saturated the show location with 15,000 to 20,000 poster sheets, or the equivalent of 626- 833 standard billboards.

Because the poster was the most important element of a circus’ promotion, they constituted one of the principle products of the commercial printers in the 19th century. Printing houses created these posters using the team approach with many artists working on any one design. One artist might specialize in lettering while another specialized in portraits of performers, and another in animals.

Circus posters fall into two categories–stock posters and specialty posters. Stock posters were generic designs that each show printer produced, but that could be used by any circus. These posters featured images of clowns, wild animals, and performers. It wasn’t uncommon for more than one circus to use the same poster designs in the same season, the only difference being the show title on the posters. Show printers produced thousands of these and sold them to any circus promoter that needed them. They designed specialty posters, on the other hand, with life-like portraits of featured performers or depictions of specific acts for particular circuses.

The value of circus posters depends on their condition. Since they’re made of paper, time and humidity can cause them to deteriorate over time. Creases, caused by folding for storage, can actually add to their value. Unfortunately, since so many artists worked on a particular poster, most aren’t signed. The best way to get a ballpark estimate of what a poster is worth is to check what a poster has sold for either through a dealer or at auction–then take half.

For more information on circus posters, read Step Right Up!

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