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Vintage poster grading: What is excellent condition?

Updated on November 5, 2014

Grading systems for posters and memorabilia on auction

Bidding on vintage posters at live auctions, or making a bid online for art or collectible objects is always exciting. The experience of raising the paddle to make a bid against other bidders in a crowded room is just part of the excitement of collecting posters, memorabilia, collectibles and art.

The most important thing about bidding at an auction is to understand the condition of the object for sale. Most auctions have a viewing period before the sale so every items can be inspected by the participants. "Lot" numbers are used to identify each item, and sometimes a group or "mixed lot" of items. Seeing the object in person is the best way to understand the actual condition of the objects for sale.

Large auction houses often print a catalog with pictures and a written description of the objects in the auction sale. The written descriptions in these catalogs have the same purpose as listings for online auctions. Because seeing photographs of the items online is no substitute for the real thing, it is critical to know which grading system is being used to describe the condition of the auction item when you make bids online.

Image by by Jonathunder at Wikimedia Commons
Image by by Jonathunder at Wikimedia Commons

Grading posters and works of art on paper

Three ways to make the grade

Three grading systems are commonly used for vintage posters. Art gallery owners and major auction houses like Sotheby's or Christie's need to use only 5 conditions to describe high-quality art work. The 6 point system provides enough detail for online auction descriptions, and 10-point grading has been created as a new standard in the marketplace. The most important thing to remember is to know exactly which grading system is being used for any transaction.

Start your art collection - Very good beginner's guide

The Intrepid Art Collector: The Beginner's Guide to Finding, Buying, and Appreciating Art on a Budget

Most reviewers agree that this is a good book for beginners who are interested in buying contemporary art. The author covers fine-art prints, photography, vintage posters, native American art, African art, rugs and antiquities. A very good reference section is included with a glossary, reviews of major art fairs, price databases, art publications, and checklists to help evaluate artwork to buy.


Field experience from the cutting-edge of collecting

Seven Days in the Art World
Seven Days in the Art World

Insiders view of what goes on in an art gallery and the art trade.

 
10-point poster grading system
10-point poster grading system

Ten point system

Poster grading with pinpoint detail

10-point poster grading was developed in recent years as a standardized way to precisely evaluate and grade posters of any kind. Basically, the best Condition C10 and C9 (Mint and Near Mint) are classified by what may not appear on the poster, with reference to the many defects to paper and image quality (see below), but there are a few surprises.

First, it's very rare to find a vintage poster in perfect Condition C10 (Mint condition) or even C9. One day, if a set of old posters is discovered in the basement of a defunct printing house, then they might be Mint. But most likely the elements would reach even the most secure cache of posters that are over 50 (vintage) or 100 years old (antique).

It may be surprising to learn that four very small pin holes in the corners of a poster is acceptable for Condition C9 (Near Mint) - if the rest of the poster is perfect. That's because it's easy to cover pin holes in the blank margin of a poster with matting board when the artwork is framed. Also, fold lines do not disqualify older posters from the highest ratings. Before 1980, most movie and music posters were folded by the printer into six or eight sections. So without any wear on the folds, these posters might qualify for Condition C9. Any other kinds of defects relegate the poster to Condition C8 (Excellent) and below.

10 point summary - The most detail

  • C10 - Mint condition: for new merchandise. Rare for vintage posters.
  • C9 - Near Mint condition: no defects except 4 pin holes at corners
  • C8 - Excellent condition: 3 or 4 defects; no tape, bleed-throughs or paper loss
  • C7 - 5 or 6 small defects max., creases and tape ok w/o bleed-throughs
  • C6 - Very Good: Holes in corners, 1" tears, fold wear, wrinkles and fading is ok
  • C5 - Tape and residue is acceptable, creases within image, writing on front
  • C4 - Good condition: below average; image area may have damage
  • C3 - Fair Condition: Complete but numerous problems
  • C2 - Poor to Fair: Extensive restoration
  • C1 - Poor: Paper falling apart, major stabilization and restoration

"Mint condition" posters eBay

These are current auctions for posters in the best condition, often vintage movie promotion posters and rock 'n' roll concert posters. See a list of popular poster collecting categories and learn more about collecting vintage posters.


Source

Define excellent condition - What defines Condition C8?

Now it's just a matter of counting up the number of defects. Any more than three or four problems means the poster is less than excellent. These defects must be barely visible. Condition C8 is known as Excellent Condition, and also "Very Fine".

So what is allowed on a poster in Condition C8? Three or four minor defects are permitted, including marks on the back of the poster that do not bleed-through to affect the quality of the image. There can be no more than two small tears on the edges, less than a quarter inch long, or one minor hole through the original fold lines. Small creases and wrinkles in the margin are acceptable, and very minor damp stains, mildew, or foxing (for definitions, see below).

A poster will be down-graded to Condition C7 (Very Good), or less if there are any holes in the margin or any paper is torn off, or if the image is faded.

Original Rock 'n Roll posters

Original rock and roll posters are prized by collectors and major auction houses are now starting to carry this type of artwork as the value has increased. Bill Graham Presents is the name of the most famous series of posters created for concerts at the Filmore Auditorium in San Francisco starting in the late 1960s and beyond the "summer of love".

The auctions at eBay listed here are some of the most valuable posters - both old and new concert "gig" posters. Find the best-selling posters books about rock music posters and learn more about collecting rock music posters.

Collecting original rock 'n roll music posters

Posters Rock!
Looking for posters and memorabilia for your favorite rock band is easy, with dozens of online resources for poster auctions and conventions. If you know wh..., with dozens of online resources for poster auctions and conventions.

6 point  poster grading system
6 point poster grading system

Six point poster grading

Poster condition for online auctions

The 6 point system is commonly used for auctions on eBay and other online auctions sites, and some live-auction galleries with showrooms. The grades are again defined by the amount of damage to the margin - the unprinted area around all four edges of the poster. Some posters are printed with "full-bleed" edges (when the image goes right to the edge), so any defects will affect the appearance of the image.

Mint condition is reserved for new posters that come directly from the artist or dealer with absolutely no visible defects. This is the same as Condition C10 in the 10 point system and nearly impossible for antique or vintage posters. Near Mint condition corresponds to Grade C9 for a nearly perfect poster with only trivial damage limited to the unprinted margin. Some sellers use Excellent condition for a poster with only 3 or 4 small defects along the edges. This is one of the vague, in-between grades like "Very Good to Near Mint" or "Good to Fair" condition. The remaining grades are somewhat loosely defined and can be prone to different interpretation. The 10 point grading system was developed to eliminate this confusion.

A poster in Very Good condition may have 6 or 7 imperfections that are close to the edges. Small tears and creases may be present, no more than one inch long, but overall a poster in this condition is still very desirable. A Good poster can have holes and tears, and even missing pieces of paper along the edges, but the majority of the poster is clean and flat. Once a poster reaches Fair or Poor condition, they are not often found in the collector's marketplace unless the subject matter is outstanding.

6 point summary - Be sure to describe defects in auction listings

It is much harder to dispute the condition of a poster after the sale if every defect is identified in the auction description, especially with detailed photographs. Complete candor and transparency about the strengths and defects of the auction item also promotes a climate of honesty that helps the seller establish a good reputation.

  • Mint (C10) Flawless, original poster
  • Near Mint (C9) No defects except 4 pin holes at corners
  • Very Good (C6) Holes in corners acceptable, 1" tears, fold wear, edge wrinkles
  • Good (C4) Damage within image area among other problems
  • Fair (C3) Heavily worn but in one piece
  • Poor (C1) Brittle and falling apart

Most popular poster art books - Movie and music posters

Gig Posters Volume I: Rock Show Art of the 21st Century
Gig Posters Volume I: Rock Show Art of the 21st Century

best collection of all the genres and poster artists

 
Auction house grading
Auction house grading

Five point system

Auction house grading

The five point system for evaluating the condition of posters is used by major auction houses where the quality of the merchandise is already at a high standard. These are the same as the grades on your school assignments, ranging from Grade A - F, with +plus and -minus for finer detail. These 5 grades roughly correspond to Condition C8 through C4 on the 10 point grading system, but you may see A+ for Condition 9 (Near Mint).

Grade A is the same as Condition C8 for vintage and antique posters, also known as "Above Average" condition, with only one or two very minor defects and minimal restoration work. Grade B is "Average" at these kind of auctions, in range of Very Good to Excellent. Grade C is "Below Average", like Very Good, which is usually the lowest category of artwork sold by major dealers and auction houses.

Posters in the last two categories of the five point system are not much to brag about. Grade D posters are similar to Grade C5 on the ten-point scale, or Good to Very Good, with several defects. These posters don't sell that well at auctions, but can be found at flea markets or uncovered in dusty barns. Condition F is used for posters that will need extensive art restoration and limited to rare and desirable topics.

Reference and resources - Poster condition and restoration

Auction Sale, Casa Loma
Auction Sale, Casa Loma | Source

Tips for starting your collection, and selling

The Collector's Dilemma: Where Do Collections End Up? What Happens to Collectors? Possibilities
The Collector's Dilemma: Where Do Collections End Up? What Happens to Collectors? Possibilities

Choices that every collector must make, including auction sales, taxes and estate planning.

 

Paper quality

Paper, parchment and papyrus

The simple fact is that many commercial posters are often printed on the lowest quality paper to be used for only a short time for advertising a product or service to a mass audience. On the other hand, fine-art posters are produced with great care in limited editions on high quality paper and sold directly to dealers and collectors.

But even before the days of the Ancient Library of Alexandria (accidentally destroyed in 48 BC by Julius Caesar) scholars and the faithful have cared for scrolls, papyrus, vellum and paper to protect their cultural heritage from the basic elements: fire, humidity, sunlight, pollution.

Poster glossary - paper defects and image quality

Visible blemishes and printing errors

Bleed-throughs - stains from tape or putty bleed into artwork

Poster stain (bleed-through): before and after poster restoration.

Creases - Tightly folded paper which breaks the surface

Chipping - Edges of brittle paper break off

Fading - Bleaching from exposure to light

Folds - Some posters were folded at the printer (pre-1980)

Foxing - Brown stains on old paper when wood pulp reacts to moisture

Holes - Minor pin holes and staples or big holes with paper loss

Paper loss - Corners, edges or holes missing

Registration - Offset printing colors don't align

Scratches - Narrow abrasions on the surface

Scuffs - Wide abrasions across image

Tape - Leaves residue and may cause bleed-throughs

Tears - Rips with no paper loss (repairable)

Trimming - Parts of the border removed (to be avoided)

Wrinkles - Crinkling at edges, less severe than Creases

Writing - Pen or pencil marks, on the front or back

See more information about poster condition and grading.

Contemporary art market - Recently published books

Grading system popularity poll - Three different degrees of accuracy

The ten point system is the new standard for vintage poster grading. Many people use the legacy grading systems with 6 or even 3 grades.

Which grading system do you like to use?

See results

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Is your poster in Good Condition? - Comments and questions

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    • dotpattern profile image
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      Pat Moire 4 years ago from West Village, New York City

      @anonymous: Will be adding that material. Thanks for you comments.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I notice there's no info on Cinema posters - especially description i.e. Original, Reproduction, sizing, Restoration of cuts (clean) or Image tears (makes you cry!) As some are double sided so linen backing no good, Tape acid free, is that acceptable? I've great Cinema Banners 8' x 5' but have cuts to double sided image, etc. Totally lost as need invisibility? Thanks

    • squidoopets profile image

      Darcie French 6 years ago from Abbotsford, BC

      This is excellent info on how to assess the condition of posters - many thanks for sharing.

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 6 years ago from Colorado

      I learned a great deal from this lens. Thanks for the excellent information.

    • FanfrelucheHubs profile image

      Nathalie Roy 6 years ago from France (Canadian expat)

      Blessed by a squidoo angel! I am a collector of various things (not posters) and found your page to be interesting as well as informative! Thank you for sharing!