The Art of the Hill

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Art Of The Hill 1103

On a cold Manhattan night in January, there are close to 50 people sitting in the loft space of Swann Galleries, not far from Gramercy Park. Another half-dozen are connected by phone from Aspen, Stowe and various European cities. Their attention is focused on a circa-1935 poster by Sascha Maurer depicting a woman in a single chairlift, her wooden skis pointed skyward, the profile of Smugglers' Notch, Vt., in the background. Quickly a finger stabs the air here, a numbered paddle pops up over there, and before long a gavel curtly signals that a deal is done at $1,100. A few minutes later, all eyes are on a brightly hued poster of skiers circling the Round House restaurant at Sun Valley. The gavel closes the bidding at $3,000.

At the center of the action is Nicholas Lowry, a featured appraiser on PBS's Antiques Roadshow, auctioning off yet another selection of vintage ski posters. "Ski posters are bought for the destination, the artist and the design, among other reasons," says Lowry, 35, the president of Swann Galleries, a New York—based auction house established in 1941. At Swann, Lowry also serves as principal auctioneer and director of the poster department.

It was Swann Galleries, along with Christie's East in London, that was largely responsible for nurturing the resurgent popularity of ski posters. Both houses started auctioning them just a few years ago. Major art dealers around the country have noticed the hot market, and now some top dealers offer extensive collections of vintage ski posters.

"Skiing posters have joined the blue-chip group of elite travel posters," says Jim Lapides, president of the International Poster Gallery in Boston and one of the country's foremost dealers in ski posters. "They're part of a grand tradition. The history of skiing is cool, and Boomers have flocked to the field, which is reflected in increasing prices. Ski posters combine travel, sports and fashion. That's a powerful combination."

The earliest ski posters date to the 1890s. You've probably seen Jules Abel Faivre's "Sports D'Hiver Chamonix (Mont Blanc)" depicting a young woman in a long dress descending a slope on skis, using a single pole to steer. With a head start on skiing, Europeans were also way ahead of Americans when it came to producing ski posters. France, Austria, Germany and Italy each turned out hundreds, if not thousands, of striking ski posters, especially during the golden era of poster design, from about 1925 to 1955.

"We began collecting them back in 1987," says Janet O'Grady, editor of Aspen Magazine, who amassed a fine collection of European posters with her late husband, Randy Beier. "We loved them because they're romantic and campy and they have amazing graphics and history. And our collection has really appreciated."Using vibrant colors to grab your eye and bold graphics to hold your attention, posters served to both entice and educate the public about winter destinations. Train lines like the New Haven, Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific, all of which could get you to ski resorts, relied on posters to sell their services. Hoteliers like Zermatt's Seiler Hotels employed posters to attract guests. United Airlines used Jean-Claude Killy to advertise "the airline of sport champions."

Every aspect of the ski life, it seemed, soon found itself brightly depicted. The Fred Iselin Ski School in Aspen produced its own poster, as did the Hannes Schneider Ski School in North Conway, N.H. Ski manufacturers, like Northland and Spaulding, joined the trend with romanticized representations of their products.

If you're persistent, you can find posters promoting Winter Olympics, most famously Ludwig Hohlwein's poster for the 1936 Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, where a skier's upraised arm suggests the Nazi salute. Tourist offices, from France to Norway to New Hampshire, used posters to advertise their winter attractions. And ski resorts like Stowe employed famous graphic artists such as Sascha Maurer, who created the classic Stowe logo that's still in use today.

As poster art evolved, masters of the genre emerged. Roger Broders worked in the 1920s and early 1930s, honing an exuberant Art Deco style. When Herbert Matter designed ski posters in the 1930s, photomontage was in vogue. These collaged images, of a face, a ski glove or a tram car, were the essence of design. Posters became more subtle in the 1940s, when the Bauhaus artist Herbert Bayer turned his attention to Aspen, integrating iconic images of aspen leaves with bold graphics. The best of the genre offer a romanticized visual lexicon of trams, rucksacks, leather ski boots and skis stuck in the snow. Smiling women often predominate, with the overall effect often verging on camp.

Ski posters are rare—and collectible—because they were, by design, ephemeral. Marketers pinned them up in train stations, slapped them on kiosks and pasted them on buildings. That so many survived is surprising. But don't confuse vintage posters with cheap, ubiquitous reproductions. Scrutinize an original, and you'll banish reprints to rec-room walls. Legitimate dealers and auctioneers provide proof of authenticity for their posters.

The late Mason Beekley, founder of the International Skiing History Association and a passionate collector of ski memorabilia, helped develop the poster market. Beekley had money, and "if he didn't have a piece, he'd buy it at any price," says Lowry. "When we started selling ski posters back in 1996, Mason Beekley was the market." But why collect posters as serious art? "Unlike with painting and sculpture," Lowry says, "you can buy a decent ski poster for less than $500."

That said, prices usually range anywhere from $400 (the Killy United poster) to $1,500 (Roger Broder's "Le Hohwald," depicting skiers in Alsace, France). And you can pay much more. The Hohlwein poster for the 1936 Olympics typically sells for $3,000, while early posters by German artist Carl Kunst, like "Bazar Nurnberg," can approach $6,000. In his 1912 "Nurnberg" poster—an advertisement for a Berlin sporting goods company—a solitary cross-country skier bends to adjust his bindings. "It's calm and the color is delicate," Lapides says. "What makes a poster desirable is a great image. It's the beauty of the design, the rarity, the condition and the locale. Lately, we've seen a retreat to quality. The great images sell."

Other dealers put it more bluntly. "Beautiful is expensive, ugly is cheap," states George Sells of Omnibus Gallery in Aspen. "People buy them because of the subject, because it's a resort they know or because they had a love affair there."

Condition is all-important when buying posters. Most dealers have a grading system (from A to C, using + and —) that accounts for tears, holes and repairs. The majority of posters are backed on linen, which makes them less likely to sustain further damage. Posters depicting Aspen and Sun Valley are immensely popular, and as a rule of thumb, Lowry says, "the better known the ski resort, the higher the price. After all, there are more rich people with chalets at Stowe than at Butternut."

Of course, there's no guarantee that the circa-1950 Peter Ewart poster for the Canadian Pacific line appraised at $1,000 won't go for $2,500. "The worst place for a novice to start buying is a publicized ski-poster auction," Lowry says. "The prices can go crazy. You get excited and spend a small fortune on something available from a dealer at half the price. It's a bloodbath for new collectors."

Lowry advises would-be collectors to talk to dealers, visit ski museums and read auction catalogs. "Exposure is the number one secret to learning about ski posters," Lowry says. "But it remains a purchase of passion, as most art buying is."

Click on the sideshow below to view some vintage posters.

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