Red alert: collecting Soviet posters

BBC Capital, February 2014

Russian and international collectors alike are enthralled by the history, subject matter and extraordinary graphic imagery of some Soviet posters, finds Kathryn Tully

A stark and terrifying image jumps out at visitors browsing through the many folders of posters at New York's Chisholm Larsson Gallery. A sinister masked figure with blacked out eyes creates CS gas in a lab in a 1984 communist propaganda poster. Yet for many, this image, entitled No to Chemical Weapons, is compelling and desirable — a reminder of the not-so-distant Cold War and its many challenges.

The gallery is asking $600 for this Viktor Koretsky poster, but it is hardly the most-valuable item in the gallery. Some of the more than 2000 posters from the former Soviet Union in the Chelsea venue go for as much as $3,500. The high prices are a signal of the demand and passion collectors bring to these particular communist artifacts.

Soviet posters, recently prized by collectors, run the gamut. They touch upon the environment, health, film and space exploration, as well as classic propaganda, depicting Lenin, Soviet workers and Stalin's five-year plans. “There are some hungry, aggressive poster collectors and you're speaking to one of them,” joked Dr Sergo Grigorian, a Russian collector based in London who has over 2000 political Soviet posters from 1917 to 1991.

For those who are fascinated by Soviet graphic design and communist history, posters are an easy way to start building a collection. They are relatively inexpensive, compared with Soviet-era paintings, for example, and even older examples from the 1920s and 1930s can be found in poster shops around the world. Yet it remains easy for either a professional collector or a hobbyist to get burned.

The appeal

Russian and international collectors are enthralled by the history, subject matter and extraordinary graphic imagery of posters produced from 1917 to 1991. Prices have increased considerably since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 as supply has dried up, so collectors who acquired posters in or before the early 1990s could have some valuable items tucked away. Chisholm Larsson's founder, Robert Chisholm, says that posters bought in 1991 are probably worth three-times the amount today, in some cases more.

“When the Soviet Union broke up, many posters were just dumped,” explained Chisholm, who bought around 3000 posters from a translator who was making frequent trips to Russia in the 1990s. “Today, we're selling some of those works back to Russian buyers.adding that space posters are particularly popular with his clients, which include US and UK collectors.

Grigorian started collecting Soviet posters in the mid 1990s, following a period collecting Soviet stamps. “My friends who weren't interested in my stamp collection were suddenly very interested in these,” he said. Since then, he has held several exhibitions, published a book and six albums of his posters and is working on a new book of previously unseen pieces. His online archive ( is a great resource for other collectors, particularly because it offers English translations of each poster's text.

Most coveted

Many posters produced in the 1980s were scooped up in the Soviet Union and taken home by tourists or have made it to other countries since. They're in plentiful supply and most are worth less than $100, said Nicholas Lowry, president of New York's Swann Auction Galleries and director of its vintage posters department. “Posters from the 1980s are beautiful, powerful and evocative, but most of them are really not that valuable,” he said.

Older posters can fetch much higher prices. Pre-Second World War Soviet posters, in particular, are in demand. Though most Soviet posters were produced in print runs of 30,000 to 60,000, they were meant to be posted on walls and then disposed of, so few older examples have survived. Lowry compares their relative scarcity to Chinese propaganda posters that have print runs of 200,000 to 500,000. “There's a flood of Chinese graphic propaganda on the market. While some famous images can command a couple of thousand dollars, most aren’t very valuable,” he said.

A few Soviet poster artists are particularly prized, such as the 1920s and 1930s Constructivist artists like Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg (currently featuring in a London exhibition on Soviet film posters at London's Gallery for Russian Arts and Design), Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and Gustav Klutsis, partly because their vibrant, avant-garde designs greatly influenced western graphic artists.

Swann Auction Galleries in New York plans to several Klutsis posters in April, including two from 1930 that they expect could sell for as much as much as $15,000 per poster. A 1923 Rodchenko poster advertising the state airline Dobrolet is estimated to fetch $20,000 to $30,000 at the same sale. Other works by these artists have sold for as much as $50,000. Grigorian often finds rare posters outside Russia, because western tourists bought and preserved them. “That's why good pieces disappear as soon as they arrive in galleries and auctions.”

Hidden treasure

Modern reproductions of Communist posters have no financial value, so buyers must be careful to avoid mistaking later copies for originals. Groups of posters of the same, smaller size could have come from a book of classic poster copies, for example. “You can't buy an original Lissitzky for $100, for example, so that's a warning sign,” said Chisholm.

You can pick up many museum-quality original posters for less than $1000, however, such as those by Koretsky. Chicago's Smart Museum of Art held a Koretsky exhibition in 2011 and “whenever major museums pay attention to an artist or genre, that creates more exposure,” Lowry said. There's no way of knowing whether poster prices will continue to increase, but buying sought-after artists now is a good bet.

Unlike other collectibles like furniture, proper restoration can also make sought-after posters owned by collectors today more valuable in the future. “If you restore a poster — by having little flakes filled in, for example — the value can increase,” Lowry said.

What to look for

Original Soviet posters will include the print run, date and often the artist's name. Before they buy, collectors also should consider gallery and auction house commissions and other costs. Lowry said cheaper posters can just be kept in a poster tube somewhere dry, but Grigorian insures his posters and stores them in a special art storage unit.

Many collectors also mount valuable, fragile posters on acid-free paper attached to canvas to protect them and to allow restoration, if necessary. Collectors certainly shouldn't display valuable posters without a frame with a UV filter, or they can quickly fade in the sun.

The bottom line

Lowry said its impossible to tell whether Soviet poster prices will continue to increase, but history suggests that the best and rarest works by important artists will. “Someone could find a roll of 30 Klutsis posters stashed in a basement that could lower prices for a while, but that's more of a fantasy at this point,” he said. Grigorian's main concern is not his collection's financial value, but ensuring it goes to a museum for future generations to enjoy after he has gone. “When you collect something, it's part of your soul, and I'm part of this period in history myself,” he said. “I just want to share it with others.”

Copyright BBC Capital