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Images That Captivate
Ashley McGeachy
July 22, 1996
Olympic posters, if they are old and rare, attract admirers and collectors
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July 22, 1996

Images That Captivate

Olympic posters, if they are old and rare, attract admirers and collectors

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By now, Izzy and the Olympic rings have been splashed on all manner of memorabilia, from T-shirts and pennants to key rings and the ubiquitous pins. But if you're looking for a souvenir with more lasting value, consider Olympic posters. A record 80 different official posters will be available for the Atlanta Games, about half of them featuring photographs and half with artwork. They will sell for $9 to $30 apiece.

The 1912 Stockholm Games were the first to have an official poster. Like those for later Olympics, the first was printed in several languages. The Japanese version of the 1912 poster might sell today for more than $5,000.

Although three of the first four modern Olympics (the Games of 1896, 1904 and 1908) didn't have official posters, poster-sized reproductions of the program covers from those Games were printed later. "For the earlier Games you have to settle for something that has a connection to those Olympics," says Robert Christianson, of Brooklyn, who has one of the world's largest collections of Olympic artwork. His collection includes a poster of the 1896 program cover and period posters such as one from the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris that shows a female fencer. The World Exhibition poster doesn't even mention that year's Paris Olympics, but the International Olympic Committee, which makes its own judgments on what qualifies as Olympic memorabilia, considers it a poster from those Games.

Posters from Christianson's collection will be on display at the Merchandise Mart in downtown Atlanta during the Games. His originals aren't for sale, but others will be at a special auction there on July 30.

Until recent years few people bothered to hang on to their Olympic posters. "The rarity has nothing to do with the number that were initially printed," says Jack Rennert, a poster-art dealer in New York City for 27 years. "In 1924, 10,000 copies of the poster from the Paris Games were printed, but few were saved." Of the more than 240,000 copies of the 1936 Berlin Games poster—German artist Frantz Wurbel's design of a golden Adonis with a chiseled jaw and steely eyes—most were discarded after the Olympics or destroyed during World War II. Only 100 or so remain, and they draw auction prices upwards of $10,000. "People have a strange fascination with those Games," says Peter Diamond, senior vice president of NBC's Olympic programming and an avid collector of Olympic memorabilia. "There were great U.S. athletes competing, and it was an incredible social setting."

One of the more unusual posters is from the 1956 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. You might ask: Weren't the '56 Summer Games held in Melbourne? Indeed they were, but the Australian government would not allow animals into the country, so the equestrian competition was held in Sweden. Even the dates on the poster, June 10-17, were different from those of the Melbourne Games, which took place in the Southern Hemisphere's spring, from late November to early December. Forty thousand copies of the Stockholm poster, bearing a design by Swedish artist John Sjövärd, were printed. Only a few remain, and each is worth up to $3,000.

The Japanese were the first to use photographs in official Olympic posters. For the 1964 Tokyo Games, Japanese graphic artist Yusaku Kamekura created three designs, using photos of a torch bearer, a swimmer and a group of sprinters, respectively. "The photos express the whole mystique of the Games," says Rennert. Those three posters were so popular that Kamekura, now 81 and living in Tokyo, has only one copy left of each.

Olympic posters are a sound investment. "They increase in value in a short time, which is unusual," Rennert says. "They are sure to double in value within two years of the Games, so you can't go wrong buying them." But beyond that, the posters are beautiful art.

"They are evocative of something that people like," says NBC's Diamond. "For me, they are a way of looking at the Olympics every day."