I get up in the morning and can't wait to go to work," says Cory Glaberson, owner of Reel Art Posters. "I'd urge everyone to work for yourself in something that gets you excited. I've been lucky, but it wasn't always easy in the beginning. In fact, the first four or five years were killers."
Glaberson has no movie poster store, though he admits there may be one somewhere down the line. He does his Reel Art movie poster business via on-line sales as well as appearing virtually non-stop at conventions and auctions. The Oak Park resident has 28,000 square feet of warehouse space in our nearby Austin neighborhood, jammed full of movie art and collectibles. There he's also got floor-to-ceiling comic books, vintage toys, records, some coins and stamps-but mostly, thousands of movie posters. Many of them are rare, one-of-a-kind items.
"I'm deep into the posters," he says, almost like someone admitting an addiction. "But as I was establishing this business, it was pretty challenging. I got myself into serious debt and had non-stop creditors calling me. I nearly lost my marriage. But by 1997, just 10 years ago, Reel Art had grown into a mature business. My eBay listing on-line saved us, too."
Emerging art form
Posters were first printed to promote silent movies in theaters just about a century ago. But down through the 20th century, most posters were thrown out as soon as a new film was booked into the movie house. In recent decades collecting has grown in popularity.
"Not everyone has the ability to express themselves or be artistic. So people use posters with their stunning artwork to decorate their homes, offices, and apartments," says Glaberson. "Producers and others in the film industry especially like to have big dramatic posters on the walls behind them."
"Movie posters are a pretty rare form of collectible," Glaberson explains. "Condition, age, and rarity are what set the value, which changes almost constantly. Movie posters, you see, were not originally created to be put into the hands of the public like comic books, postcards or baseball cards. Movie posters were designed for theaters to advertise their bookings."
Classic movie posters have appreciated in value and are becoming increasingly harder to find and thus more valuable. And tastes range wide. One person may collect only Italian movie posters; another may look for only classic Disney, such as Bambi or Dumbo.
Some traditional big-time stars have recently lost appeal. "The window seems to be closing on Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and a few others. But posters for the 'Blaxploitation' movies of the '70s are highly collectible now, and Audrey Hepburn is now hotter than ever," Glaberson explains. The cult of the Three Stooges also continues, but a poster for a Stooges short better have Curly on it, not Shemp.
While chatting with Glaberson, he opens and unpacks a huge "just arrived" carton full of large movie press books from the mid-1930s. These are not posters per se but the cover of each one features a brilliantly colored illustration advertising a specific film. Press books, technically known back in the day as "Exhibitor's Campaign Manuals," were produced by the studios, then sent out by the film distributors to theater owners to help them market their movies. A typical press book contained "press ready" articles that could be fed to the local newspapers, complete with photos and publicity information about the picture and its stars. Most newspapers, even in Oak Park, simply lifted the stuff intact. The press books also included ad schemes and product tie-ins.
The condition of any movie "paper," the term Cory Glaberson uses to refer to his acquisitions, can vary considerably but is highly important in determining the sale price. Most movie posters were originally folded and can suffer from some degree of deterioration. Pinholes, tears, and fading all affect value. Glaberson has an exciting poster for a 1950 Gene Autry western called Beyond the Purple Hills in the collection that he knows he will never be able to sell because it's on brittle paper and is nearly falling apart. The capital "A" from Autry is actually missing. So this particular poster has virtually no marketability.
"Most desirable right now are the 1930s Universal horror film classics like Dracula or Frankenstein," explains Glaberson.
The all-time high price being paid for a movie poster occurred a decade ago. A pristine poster for The Mummy (1932) with Boris Karloff sold for $453,500 at Sotheby's in 1997.
King Kong still has great appeal. Movie posters continue to command huge prices. Glaberson recently acquired a small poster with a stand-up dinosaur (complete with attachable fins) from the film's original 1933 release.
"I'm out on the road at least 40 weeks a year," Glaberson says. "When I come across something exciting but the seller doesn't know its value, I try to be fair and not rip them off. I don't want people yelling at me later or making life miserable for me. I don't want to cheat people."
Hitting the jackpot
"I recently found a real major treasure in Iowa. An elderly former movie usher in Des Moines had died and left a family member a number of posters he'd saved in the 1930s. He had been so obsessive-compulsive, he'd even kept a diary of the original exhibition dates. In the assortment was a lot of beautiful stuff, but the big payoff was a poster for Universal's The Invisible Man. I really hit the jackpot. I did not swindle the seller, however. I gave him a nice cut of the eventual auction sale profit."
The poster for The Invisible Man had probably never been seen since the 1933 release of the Claude Rains horror classic. It was in near mint condition, with colors still vibrant, appearing almost as it had when it was originally printed. There was only one small tear near the top. Glaberson sold this poster for $84,000 at the 5th Annual Hollywood Poster Auction and Convention in New York last month.
"That's the way it goes," Glaberson notes. "Ten percent of the collection is worth 90 percent of its value. Not every item here is worth gold, of course."
One hot collectible Glaberson deals in is the lobby card. They're no longer used in theaters but lobby cards were small 11- by-14-inch movie posters designed for display in foyer showcases to lure patrons in by offering glimpses of key scenes. They were printed in horizontal format on heavy card stock and distributed in sets of eight. Lobby cards are generally more affordable than posters. But certain lobby cards have acquired almost Holy Grail status among collectors-like Orson Welles at the podium in Citizen Kane or King Kong holding Faye Wray in his paw.
Go on-line to check Reel Art's current listings and you can see a lobby card for Nothing Sacred (1937) with Carole Lombard listed at $550 and another from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) with Fredric March for $700. But there are deals to be had, too, if one has eclectic taste and a sense of humor. A movie poster for something called Frankenstein Created Woman, a 1967 Peter Cushing horror epic, sells for $9.99.
The show circuit
Touring his warehouse space, Glaberson points out his "wall of mistakes." It's a large shelving section chock full of stuff he'd purchased that didn't catch fire. Collectors just never seemed that interested in any of this material.
As Glaberson shows off his collection, he says what he enjoys the most is what he calls the "show circuit," where many other dealers exhibit their stuff for sale with thousands of customers and collectors showing up, too.
"I love 'the road,'" Glaberson says. "It's thrilling. I listen to my books-on-tape and stop at all the roadside attractions. I actually go all over the world. I'm going to Europe in January-Manchester, London, even one show just outside Paris and maybe another in Spain. My wife gets first pick on where we go. Hawaii and Japan are coming up. It's wonderful for us."
The first movie poster auction ever held in Chicago will take place on Saturday, March 15, in the Nikko Room of the Marriott O'Hare in Chicago, he mentions.
Cory Glaberson has been marketing movie memorabilia since 1992 but his business has roots back in his childhood. He used to ride around on his bike selling comic books to other neighborhood kids.
"I hate working for other people," Glaberson observes. "I always have. But this business is hard work, too. I am always out there looking for stuff and buying things. But I'm good at this. And I love it."