When Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his colleagues were designing posters back in the late 1800s, they didn’t expect them to end up framed on gallery walls. Lautrec, Jules Cheret, Alphonse Mucha, and dozens of other Parisian artists–who had been hired by candy companies, hatmakers, tire manufacturers, theaters, music halls, and so on–were just designing ads.

“They were printed on this really crappy thin paper,” says Albert Sanford, director of the Merrill Chase Gallery at Water Tower Place. “It was never meant to be collected. It was just meant to be glued onto the side of a building.”

But the poster artists underestimated the popularity of their art. Their bright colors and stylized illustrations that decorated the city’s streets caught the public eye, and by 1884 a Paris gallery had organized an exhibit of the posters. In 1896 a printing company started selling smaller versions of the posters–still original prints–by mail order. For the equivalent of about $50 a year, subscribers to “The Masters of the Poster” series got four prints a month. The posters became trendy collector’s items. “They were like baseball cards,” Sanford says.

Today those posters, large and small, are still collector’s items. More than 100 of them are on display in Merrill Chase’s current exhibit of vintage posters, “The Triumph of the Poster,” curated by Sanford and Michael Gallfer. The show–divided between the Water Tower gallery and the two suburban galleries–includes large posters (as big as four by six feet) and small ones (the smallest is about the size of a letter). Many of the smaller posters were originally part of “The Masters of the Poster” series. There are also menu covers, song sheets, and illustrations from political and literary journals.

The posters on the walls at Merrill Chase, like those in other galleries and private collections, never lined the streets in Paris; collectors didn’t sponge posters off the walls. “The glue was just as good then as it is now,” says Sanford. They were overruns, extra copies that were never used either because the printer made extras to sell to collectors or because the person pasting them up stopped short.

Sanford’s interest in vintage posters first started when he was in high school. He was living with a family in the French Riviera as part of a student-exchange program, and he spent a lot of time in museums. One day he happened to stumble on the Jules Cheret Museum in Nice, and he loved it. “I was really struck by the intense color,” he says.

He bought a Cheret for $20. Once back home in Minneapolis, he found it was worth closer to $300. He learned all he could about the genre and worked in an art gallery one summer. Then–on a junior-year-abroad program in Paris (he was studying political science and French, the subjects he eventually got a degree in)–he became the U.S. liaison for a vintage poster dealer. He was written up in People magazine as the youngest art dealer and collector in the country.

Things have changed since Sanford was in high school. “One myth people have is that you go to Europe and these things are all over the place,” he says. “Twenty years ago, maybe. But right now the market is more in the United States than in Europe.”

Vintage-poster collecting has boomed in this country over the past two decades. The posters started to get popular again in the mid-60s, when Warhol and his contemporaries were doing poster design. Since then, demand has become so high that almost all of the works that were part of artists’ estates 20 years ago are now in the possession of collectors and galleries. The German national museum has more posters in its collection than any other museum in the world, and the Musee de l’Affiche in Paris is devoted exclusively to posters. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, which has had several poster exhibits since the mid-60s, has more than 2,000 posters.

In the midwest, Sanford says, Merrill Chase Galleries have had the largest presence in vintage posters over the last 20 years, and this show is probably the biggest they have put together. In fact, says Sanford, “it’s probably the largest collection of this merchandise on display in a [commercial] gallery in the world.”

Altogether, the pieces in this show are worth about $1 million, and the single most valuable piece sells for $85,000. Values have shot up mostly because it’s getting harder and harder to find vintage posters. But there are more important reasons for their value, Sanford says.

First–and most obvious–the posters serve as examples of the artists’ work. Rather than reproducing paintings or illustrations they had done before, Lautrec and the others designed original art for each poster. The posters also mark the first use of color lithography, a process of transferring ink to paper with stones, in which some of the stone’s surface area is made ink receptive, the rest ink repellent. “Cheret figured out you could use a different stone for each color, and one color on top of another on top of another created this very luminous effect,” Sanford says. “Most of these are only four colors, and yet he’s achieved this chromatic range.”

Strangely, folds and tariff stamps, which make the posters look authentic, diminish their value. “As with most art, condition is a really important factor,” Sanford says. One of the most valuable pieces in the exhibit–a flawless four-piece Mucha series called “The Four Flowers”–is also the one most likely to be mistaken for a reproduction.

Sanford’s favorite thing to point out is the history behind the posters. If not for the industrial and social changes that took place in 19th-century France, there would have been no new leisure class and no reason to sell the products promoted by the posters. “You had cultural revolution, industrial revolution, social change, political intrigue that was all reflected by these posters,” Sanford says. “These posters reflected the changes of that time.”

“The Triumph of the Poster” runs through April 30 at the Merrill Chase Galleries at Water Tower Place, 845 N. Michigan, the Woodfield Mall at Route 53 and Golf Road in Schaumburg, and the Oakbrook Center Mall at Route 83 and 22nd Street in Oak Brook. Gallery hours are 10 to 9 weekdays, 10 to 6 Saturdays, and vary on Sundays. For more information, call 337-6600, 330-0300, or 572-0225.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.