Prop Art

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

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 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.

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