Prop Art

Why posters made of paper can be worth more than gold.

 He bought the first one for a dollar at a Connecticut flea market in 1961. Forty-three years and a hundred posters later, Bruce Whitman, a former B-25 pilot and president of the aviation and marine training company Flight Safety International, can say precisely what he likes about every single poster in his collection: the message.

"Patriotism. Commitment. Service," he says. "It's all about serving your country. And having been a pilot myself in the Air Force, [military aviation] was certainly one of the drawing forces." (Whitman earned a triple rating in the B-25: pilot, navigator, and bombardier.)

Most of his posters date from the 1940s, the decade before Whitman's own service in the Strategic Air Command and, he says, an extraordinary time for the country, a characterization repeatedly borne out in his posters by brief, urgent calls to action. "Everybody-everybody-in the country was needed," he says. "And everybody was together behind the war."

Whitman didn't set out to build a collection, but he enjoyed looking for the posters when he traveled, and he found them almost everywhere he went, from Paris to a small town in Nevada. "There's a lot of unproductive time when you travel," he says, "and I would ask to be directed to places that handled aviation memorabilia. I prowl around, visit kind of seedy antique stores."

He hasn't looked on eBay. "I don't think that's fun," Whitman says.

One of his suppliers is Meehan Military Posters in New York. Mel Meehan says the message is what brings in most of her customers. "I am a queen to scrap dealers because I can sell them a poster with a message like 'Scrap is the key to victory in World War II,' " Meehan says. "They buy the poster and put it on the wall in the office, and they feel ennobled."

Though most of her customers buy the posters "because they have an emotional attachment" to them, there is the rare collector who sees his purchase strictly as an investment. "When a poster goes into a museum," she says, "it is there forever. And as more and more of these posters find their way into museums, the pool grows smaller." Vintage aviation posters are as finite as waterfront property.

Meehan's biggest sale was to a customer who had seen a rare poster on the public television program "Antiques Roadshow." Meehan had one, and the man was willing to pay what the show's evaluator estimated as its worth because, he said, "I know it's only going to be more expensive later." The price: $28,000.

Most of the 3,000 posters in Meehan's inventory sell for considerably less. In general, she says, World War I posters are rarer and therefore more expensive than those issued during World War II. Recruiting posters and ads for U.S. Savings Bonds are less expensive because so many were produced.

The poster Whitman bought for a buck in 1961 would fetch considerably more today. A 1918 U.S. air service recruiting poster, it's listed in one of Meehan's catalogues for $1,600. The most valuable in Whitman's collection are two posters signed by the artist Howard Chandler Christy. Both are rare, but about one of them, Mel Meehan says, "I've been in the business for 23 years. I've seen two." The poster was printed in 1920, when military need was not perceived to be great and the number of posters produced was correspondingly smaller.

Christy is best known as the artist who painted "The Signing of the Constitution of the United States," which hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., but his chief work was illustrating; his drawings also appeared in magazines. "Aviation: Fly with the U.S. Marines" is different from his other illustrations. The art is dreamy; the message milder than the appeals of posters issued during wartime.

It is not the message that entices Bill Allen to acquire a poster. "It's really the art," he says, "and not necessarily the quality of it but the impact it has and the pleasure you get from looking at it." Allen collects all kinds of aviation memorabilia for his Allen Airways Flying Museum, open by invitation only at Gillespie Field in San Diego. A developer, hotel owner, and private pilot, Allen has in his museum six airplanes, 10,000 artifacts, and more than 400 aviation posters. In 2000 the National Air and Space Museum exhibited 32 of his early flight posters in a show that traveled the country. Allen published them with others in Looping the Loop: Posters of Flight, a large-format book of elegant advertisements for air meets and races, as well as military aviation posters of the two world wars. Another part of his collection has never left Gillespie Field, though the posters themselves were seen by thousands when they decorated movie theaters in the United States and Europe.

A few years ago, Allen began to think of a second book, of aviation movie posters, when he acquired "a big slug of 'em and they were really cool," he says. They are captivating, not just for their graphics but for the history they represent. You know just by looking at the "Tailspin Tommy" banner ("The greatest poster on the planet," says Allen) that 12-year-olds would have waited all week for Saturday mornings, when the 1935 series aired. Then you realize that many of those fans grew up to be the 20-year-olds flying warplanes in 1943. World War II is represented in the collection by documentaries as well as feature films. During the war, the British Ministry of Information hired feature filmmakers to produce morale-boosting propaganda flicks starring the Royal Air Force. Target for Tonight (1941) shows the planning and execution of a Wellington bomber raid on Germany. The U.S. War Department followed suit, drawing on the talent of director William Wyler (Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur) for its documentaries.

Aviation was also popular with directors who made romance and adventure films in the 1930s, some more capably than others. The 1936 movie Devil's Squadron, about the dangers test pilots faced, is not in the same league with Only Angels Have Wings, a 1939 drama with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, set in South America and directed by Howard Hawks (a pilot in World War I). The disparity proves that you can't judge a film by its poster.

For Peter Kramer, it's a matter of heredity. His dad flew in B-24s as a navigator in World War II, "came back, had 10 kids, and never flew again, but he photographed airplanes his whole life," Kramer says. His father documented most of the national air races in the 1930s, and he passed along the passion for air racing to his son. When his dad died at 75 (he had been at the airport with his camera that day, Kramer says), he also passed along to his son his photo collection and racing programs from the 1930 and 1939 national air races. At first, Kramer, who rebuilds Corvettes at a restoration shop near Chicago, wanted to find racing programs just to fill in the rest of the decade: the Golden Age of racing, when most of the events were held in Cleveland, Ohio. Thirteen years later, he has every racing program from 1920 to 1949 except the one from the Spokane Air Derby in 1927 (he's buyin' if you're sellin') and has branched out into posters.

Kramer bought the 1930 Chicago National Air Races poster from Bill Allen; it's from the first race his dad attended. He has also traded with fellow collector John Garrett, a Costa Mesa, California businessman who built his collection from "bits and pieces" he found in the 1960s. Kramer calls himself "just a regular guy, not a big collector like Bill Allen," but he does have one big-ticket item: the poster advertising the first international air meet in Rheims, France. (At that 1909 event, Glenn Curtiss and his Golden Flyer won the Gordon Bennett Trophy, plus a $5,000 prize for the best speed in a two-lap, triangular 10-kilometer [6.2-mile] course, averaging 47 mph.) Kramer looked for years for the poster, found it through a New York auction house, and bought it for $5,400.

The sentimental value of Kramer's collection, the aesthetic delights of Bill Allen's, the love of duty and country in the posters of Bruce Whitman-posters satisfy a range of hankerings. Mel Meehan, who trained as an art historian and taught for 12 years at Indiana University, likes the posters because, she says, they are not "art with capital letters. They were thought to be disposable, to be put on walls and get rained on. And that makes them kind of wonderful. They are immediate. They were done fast, and there's no filter, so they are mirrors of the time."

And some come with a message.

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