POSTER CHILD

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Art for ad's sake: advertising posters are drawing a bigger audience with deeper pockets.

If you missed Jack Rennert's latest poster auction in Manhattan, on May 2nd, not to worry. Rennert, 62, a collector of vintage advertising posters since he graduated from Columbia College in 1959 with a degree in political science, is on a twice-a-year cycle with his poster extravaganza. So there'll be a chance to buy a genuine Mauzan or Toulouse-Lautrec in the fall. His company, Poster Auctions International, often brings in over $1.5 million from each of those sales.

Advertising posters are a dying medium, Rennert says, which makes them increasingly rare. Costly, too. Posters in mint condition can sell for $50,000 (as some Russian Constructivist posters have) and even $200,000 (Rennert's record-breaking sale of a Toulouse-Lautrec poster). The majority of posters offered in Rennert's auctions, however, sell for less than $10,000, with many in the $1,000-2,000 range. "I try not to auction anything that has a value of under $1,000, though we'll sometimes offer a collection of 50 Polish circus posters that individually might cost $15 each," he explains.

Flipping through one of Rennert's 28 auction catalogs reveals a panoply of work from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in a variety of styles. Among the most famous examples: A.M. Cassandre's oft-reproduced Art Deco poster for transatlantic voyages on the Normandie; ornate, fin-de-si├Ęcle Klimt-esque Art Nouveau posters by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha announcing Sarah Bernhardt performances; and 1920s Russian Constructivist film posters by the Stenberg Brothers, advertising Sergei Eisenstein's October.

"The best-selling poster in the '60s was a color picture of a monkey sitting on a toilet seat, holding a banana in one hand and flushing the toilet with the other," says Rennert, sounding a little exasperated. "I'm only interested in real posters -- posters that were designed to promote or announce some product, service or event."

Ironically, the oldest posters are sometimes the best preserved (and often the cheapest). "It's easier for me to find a good 1890 poster than it is to find a good 1930 poster," says Rennert. "In the 1890s, there was a kind of postermania -- the French call it affiche-o-manie. There were poster galleries, publications, parties and exhibitions. Posters were hot."

And they are yet again. Rennert's public sell-offs regularly boast more attendees than the print auctions at Sotheby's and Christies, and they draw as many as 700 regulars, including celebrities such as Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman, and Ken Miller. All right, so maybe Ken Miller isn't a celebrity, but he does run the Manhattan-based advertising and marketing company Global Marketing Group. And he loves posters. "I started collecting posters in the '70s because it was related to my business." says Miller. "It was something I could understand at a price I could afford." Now Miller collects sought-after posters by Mucha and Cassandre, and has been a regular seller and buyer at Rennert's auctions since the beginning. "They're excellent resources for posters I can't find," Miller says. "I'm confident about the authenticity. Jack backs up whatever he sells."

Rennert's expertise will serve him well when and if he fulfills his dream: He'd like to establish the world's first International Poster Museum. This institution would have a permanent collection, rotating exhibitions and live lithography demonstrations, and be based in New York. The only problem: limited funds -- at least until a few generous backers come on board. "When you're talking about a poster, you're talking about advertising -- and New York is the advertising center of the world," he says. "Frankly, I think the advertising community should support us."

To hear Rennert tell it, success is ensured. "I can guarantee that this will be the single most popular museum in the whole city," he says. "There's no medium

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