Grey Smith (Heritage Auctions) Movie Poster Interview
It seems you wait around for an incredible undiscovered collection to appear, and then two turn up at once.
Grey Smith, Director of Movie Poster Auctions at heritage, has described the discovery as “the most exciting find of my 35 years in the business.” We spoke to Grey about the discovery, and how the vintage movie poster market has developed in recent years. How did the discovery of the Berwick Collection come to light?
I was called here in Dallas by a person who knew of the posters coming to a small auction in Central Pennsylvania. They wanted to know, if they bought them, whether Heritage would have an interest in them. I inquired as to what there was. They only told me what posters were visible on the top of the stacks, which was more than enough to convince me that this could be something special. Turns out both of us were right.
How did you and your team at Heritage feel as you discovered another treasure beneath every layer?
I was doing a large part of the physical work myself, with the help of an assistant. We started slowly, using a steamer and not knowing whether the glue that was used would release and, if it did release, how well the posters would come off – very much a risk for the buyer but it certainly paid off. One of the first posters to come to light was a one sheet for Dietrich’s Dishonored but, as thrilling as that was, it was what I could see below that which really got my heart racing.
In the early 1930s Warner Brothers used a purple stamp on the back of all of their one sheet, three sheet and six sheet posters; they were one of the only studios to mark their posters in this manner. The other studios usually didn’t put anything on the verso denoting what the poster was. Now, as I steamed the Dishonored poster, I noticed in a white area on one of Dietrich’s cuffs a purple stamp starting to bleed through. I was working from the back of these posters, so I couldn’t see much of anything about the image on the poster in front of the one I was working on, but I could see the stamp. After a bit more water and steam I began to see the title Public Enemy bleed through from the purple stamp. It was then that I knew that the I had something significant on my hands. A one sheet for this title had never been seen before that very moment.
Another great moment came when I was working a different stack and had pulled up about the top six or more inches of a one sheet on the top along the edge, those edges being where the steam was best able to seep into the stack. Being a little curious as to what may be a couple of posters down, I began to work that edge and pulled up about three of the top posters, revealing the top three or more inches on the fourth poster. All I could see was artwork displaying a raised hand. Then I saw the words “Carl Laemmle Presents.”
I stopped, almost disbelieving what I suspected this poster was. I ran to get the Heritage Auctions catalog from my sale a couple of years back that pictured the very valuable Dracula one sheet we sold. Sure enough, I saw the hand, and the words and realized that this was indeed an incredibly rare and valuable Style F Dracula one sheet, only the fourth of its kind ever seen. The poster was there and it was well-protected by the other posters surrounding it.
Have you ever encountered a ‘lost’ collection like this before?
Never one of this importance. I’ve received collections that have had very rare silent film posters never-before-seen, as well as collections that had never been on the market before that were put together by collectors long before there was a market, but, no, nothing of this magnitude of posters not seen before.
Do you think there could be more collections like this hidden away out there?
Assuredly. I believe that in the years to come a number more collections will surface in some very unusual places, as there were posters in every berg in this country back in the 1930s and 1940s. There were well more than 18,000 theaters in the US in 1941 and another 1,200 in Canada. Now imagine that at each of those theaters they were provided, weekly, with a large number of promotional posters and lobby cards to advertise each film. Many, many of those theaters must have stockpiled those materials until the they were taken off of their hands years later. There has to still be many posters out there. I firmly believe this.
What are the key lots in the upcoming sale?
- Dracula- Lot 83010
- Public Enemy Style A –Lot 83025
- Public Enemy Style B- Lot 83024
- Little Caesar Style B- Lot 83020
- Cimarron- Lot 83003
- Maltese Falcon 1931-Lot 83021
How do you think the vintage movie poster market has developed in recent years?
The market has progressed very well from the 1980s until today.
With the advent of auctions devoted just to the rare material in movie posters, which began in the late 1980s, the value of posters has grown steadily. eBay was another turning point in collecting posters, as with many other hobbies. It brought the attentions of millions of people to some of the hobbies that weren’t really well-known to that point.
Some of us in the movie poster hobby still say it’s one of the best kept secrets of all hobbies. I believe with the newer technologies, such as streaming video and the fact that soon one will be able to download almost any film that is still known to exist, the interest in the history of film will continue to be spurred, which will, no doubt, whet the appetite of others to own the original posters.
Do you think the view of movie posters as ‘poor man’s art’ is changing?
Yes. The market is maturing and, with that maturation, the prices will climb to where these wonderful works of art will be seen in the light of being historical artifacts from the release of the films.
Universal Horror posters are regarded as the ‘blue chip stock’ for collectors. Is this purely down to rarity, or is there something inherent in the genre and the characters that make the posters more valuable and sought after?
Rarity is a large part of the reason horror is such a collectible genre. These films were often reissued many, many times and the original posters from the films were simply used up and discarded. The demand is also due to the iconic nature of the horror characters. Boris Karloff is Frankenstein’s Monster and Bela Lugosi is Count Dracula. We couldn’t imagine anyone else in these roles, as they’ve simply and indelibly been etched into our collective memory.
Are there any genres you feel are currently undervalued? And any areas in which the market is growing?
Much of the poster hobby is undervalued now. People are just not aware of how very scarce the posters for the great titles are. Whereas comics had a run in the Golden Age of hundreds of thousands per issue of something like Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, a movie from that same time period had a one sheet print run of some six, seven, eight thousand copies and many, if not most of those were destroyed through use, paper drives during the war or fire codes after the war in which the theater owners were forced to dispose of their holdings.
Which areas are growing in the hobby? It would have to be for newer films. More contemporary classics like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Taxi Driver, Jaws, anything Clint Eastwood but especially his “spaghetti Westerns” or Dirty Harry films. The posters from these films are growing in popularity as buyers are aging and looking for titles they loved as children.
What else has the Heritage Poster Department got planned for 2012?
We hold three Signature® catalog auctions a year and a weekly “Internet Only” auction, which begins and closes each Sunday evening at 10PM U.S. CT. Those can be found on our website at www.ha.com/movieposters .
We have a large movie poster, movie memorabilia and comic and comic art auction planned for July at our Beverly Hills facility. We’re always looking for rare and great movie posters and I’m sure we will have more wonderful finds for poster fans this year.