Steinlen, Cats, Mice, Red Wine and Poster Restoration….

On occasion I will buy a poster that is in less-than-excellent condition, or a client will bring in a poster that needs professional love and care (read: restoration). I realized, when I opened L’Affichiste, that professional restorers and linen backers, are hard to find. I think that’s because poster restoration is a painstaking, time-consuming, detailed (almost lost) art form that only crazy people would undertake (here’s a video of a crazy person, I mean poster restorer, at work ). I mean really, in our Internet-driven, fast-paced world, can you really imagine harvesting old paper scraps in the event that they might be needed for a months-long restoration project that might come your way??

wine stains

1932 Italian Art Deco Poster, Amaretti Di Saronno -Marchesi
1932 Italian Art Deco Poster, Amaretti Di Saronno -Marchesi

Poster restorers can work magic: here are two ‘before’ photos of our of our posters just after it was accidently doused with red wine at a vernissage (we don’t do those anymore!), and after it came back from a bleaching and relining job…

A little history: “The backing of posters with fabric dates back to 19th century France, where posters were occasionally glued to linen for reinforcement. This provided some protection, but with the passage of time the paper continued to become brittle and was frequently torn by stress. Modern backing techniques have eliminated this problem by using an acid free paper between the poster and the fabric. The adhesive used is wheat paste treated to inhibit mold growth.

The principal reason to fabric-back a poster is to provide support for the paper. It also enables the conservator to flatten the folds and to more easily make repairs. Fabric backing also eliminates the waviness that can occur when the poster is framed.

Restoration can dramatically improve the appearance of a poster. Damage caused by clear adhesive tape, residual stains, water marks and dirt can be easily repaired; combining this with the replacement of lost paper can bring the poster back to virtually its original state.”

I’ve actually never had the stomach to watch one of my babies during the restoration process, but there are some very detailed videos that show the process step-by-step,,

A little over two years ago I wrote a post that I still love (yes, I know, but I really do love it – because I love the story, because I grew to love the poster, and I really admire the man who brought it in). As it details the restoration of a particular poster, I will reprint it here:

Shortly after I opened the gallery about 4 years ago, a new client rang the bell. As I waited for him to climb the stairs, I noticed his height, his elegant and well tailored cashmere coat, and the ease with which he carried himself. A man who appeared to be in his sixties, with a full head of grey hair and a formal demeanor, made his way up and slowly bent down to take off his galoshes. As he straightened up, he put his hand out, introduced himself and asked if I was the owner of the gallery. When I indicated that I was, he asked if he could come in and talk about posters and my knowledge of them. Up until that point, when folks would wander into the gallery, more often than not, it was curiosity that had driven them in, but with this man, it was clear that L’Affichiste had actually been his destination.

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He walked in and took measure both of the gallery as well as of me. I seem to remember him asking me very polite questions about how I started collecting, why I had chosen to open the gallery, how and where I bought and sold my posters – the usual questions, but phrased very delicately and very precisely. He looked both grandfatherly as well as a little frightening – a man who was not to be trifled with, and one who could be deadly serious. When I later learned that he was a much-respected lawyer with a well-established French Canadian firm, I was not surprised.

He told me the story of how his father’s brother had been an architect in Paris at the turn of the century, and how when this uncle returned to Quebec, he brought with him a half dozen posters from Paris. The posters – which he described to me – had adorned the family cottage in a remote town called Trois Pistols until the uncle died. At that point the posters were handed down to other family members – some remained in the cottage, some were dispatched to other locations, one was water damaged and thrown out by a cleaning lady – and now, 100+ years after they were printed, according to the gentleman in front of me, they were in need of repair. From the descriptions of the posters it seemed to me that we were talking about very famous posters – some by Mucha, others by Steinlen – but without images, or the posters themselves, there was no way to tell if the posters were vintage, what state they were in, and if, indeed, they could be repaired. I told my visitor as much – I said that without seeing the posters first-hand I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to what he had inherited, what restoration might be possible, what the repairs might cost – the only way I might be able to help was to see the posters first-hand. He said that because of their size they were hard to manage and that he would take what I said under advisement. He thanked me very much for my time, gave me his business card, shook my hand very formally, put his galoshes back on and left.


A few months later, his wife and her sister-in-law appeared at the gallery together – each one carrying a large poster in a thin frame. Neither poster had ever been covered by glass, and both were in very serious states of disrepair. Water damage, harsh weather (the cabin was not weather proofed), mouse nibbles, cracked ink and stained and missing parts of the images – if you were looking for posters which showed every possible sign of neglect and disrepair, these were excellent examples. They had been nailed to their flimsy frames with ancient thumb-tacks, they had been trimmed inexpertly, they were cracked and torn … in short, these were literally shadows of the posters which had been brought back from Paris a hundred years previously. But underneath all the grime and dust I could clearly see that both posters were signed in the stone by Steinlen – one was an iconic image of Steinlen’s daughter Colette and her favorite cat, both were printed by Steinlen’s official printer of choice, and each was undeniably the real thing.

The ‘Antiques Road Show’ moment came when I told the ladies that the last price – at auction – for the Lait Pur Sterilize poster (Colette and her cat) was close to $50,000US. Granted, it would take a lot of money, a great deal of time, and the care and meticulous attention of an expert restorer, but the poster we were looking at was – if they could afford it – worth the investment. They consulted, they spoke with their husbands, they thought about it for months, and then they decided to go forward with the restoration. I respected the delay – we were, after all, talking about thousands of dollars worth of work, as well as the complicated negotiations between in-laws as to who would get which poster (the other poster was interesting, also by Steinlen, but it wasn’t nearly as significant as the iconic Lait Pur Sterilise) – and in some bizarre way, I felt honored with the trust and confidence these meticulous people were showing me

cat befor and after

It took two restorers more than a year to bring Colette back to life. When she returned to me, she looked much as she had when she originally came off the press: clean, pure, and very much as Steinlen had designed her more than a century before. Both my clients and I were very pleased with the results.

colette before after
The backside of the poster ‘before’, and the restored poster just before it was framed.

Some months later my dapper French Canadian lawyer client returned with another poster rolled under his arm. When I unwrapped it I recognized a Cheret – well, more precisely, as a piece of a Cheret. The poster my client presented me with was a variation of a poster Cheret produced for a company called Saxoleine – producers of lamps and lights in Belle Epoque Paris. Although Cheret is not one of my favorite artists, I was familiar enough with his work to recognize that this fragment was roughly one quarter of its original size, and it too was in sorry shape. I suggested that it would be less expensive to buy an original, full size Cheret poster of the same theme – possibly even the same image- than it would be to reconstruct this poster as we had the Steinlen. But this time the client needed no time to think. He wanted the work done – it didn’t matter how long it took or how much it cost.

Again I sent it to New York, and again it took months of work to recover and reconstruct the poster to its original color and beauty. When I finally received the Cheret from the restorer I called the client to tell him his poster was ready and we made an appointment for him to come collect it. In the meanwhile, I had done some research and had printed out for him an image of what the entire poster had originally looked like – from the piece I had restored I knew precisely which poster it was. I had placed this image next to his restored fragment.

Once again, this formal, elegant, tall and distinguished man came to the gallery, but this time, his reaction upon seeing his restored poster was completely unexpected – both to him as well as to me. He looked at it, and looked at the image I had printed out for him. He looked up at me, and looked again at his poster. When he began to speak, he had tears in his eyes. “I remember now”, he said, haltingly, “I remember it was in grandmama’s house, under the stairs… and when we had a leak, the ‘homme a tout faire’ cut it out of the frame and tacked it back on the wall so we could still enjoy it. I remember it now…” Suddenly, he was a little boy again, in his ancestral home, looking up at this Cheret poster that must have, at the time, been colorful and beautiful and lush. And he remembered the smells of the house and the sounds of it, and all of that came tumbling out of the mouth of this reserved and usually reticent lawyer in short, breathless bursts… It was the poster that brought it back to him – this fragment of a poster which had been produced more than a hundred years previously, and which had been in his grandmother’s home. A poster which had long been forgotten and rolled up in an attic, and which now was able to bring this older man back to his childhood more clearly than anything else had in a very long time.

When I think of posters, and their power, this is the story I tell most often. It gives me goose bumps every time because it is real, and to me it shows the awesome power that posters have to evoke a time, an idea or a memory. Not every poster can bring you back to your youth, nor is every poster significant. But I believe that there is something inherent in this art form which I love that manages to bridge history, memory and the desire to understand both that transcends the images of the posters themselves. That is why I opened L’Affichiste, and it’s why I love walking into my gallery every day.

We have used a number of restorers since we opened 6 years ago. Some are better than others, none are fast, all are expensive. But they really are practitioners of a lost art, and as such, earn every penny. We currently use and recommend Poster Conservation in Stamford, Connecticut. (They did not do the work on the Steinlen featured in this story, nor are they the firm in the videos we added.)

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