A rowdy band of bloodsuckers, gunslingers, wily wise guys, jaded private eyes, hardboiled reporters and good girls gone bad, stuck in an attic together for 80 years, is going its separate ways.
Nearly three dozen movie theater posters from the Golden Age of Hollywood found in a Pennsylvania attic are expected to fetch $250,000 at auction in Texas this month. They were stuck together with wallpaper glue when they were purchased for around $30,000 at a country auction last fall in Berwick, near Wilkes-Barre in northeastern Pennsylvania.
The buyer, who chose to remain anonymous, consigned them to Heritage Auctions in Dallas, where the stack of 33 Depression-era posters was painstakingly steamed and gingerly separated over the course of several weeks.
"As we started to peel them apart, it was one of the greatest treasure troves from a beautiful period of poster printing," said Grey Smith of Heritage Auctions, where the posters go on the block March 23.
The separated posters underwent minor touch-ups and were backed with linen at a restoration house, he said.
"A number of them were in very, very nice shape. ... The colors had not seen the light of day in 80 years," Smith said. They were glued, one atop the other, apparently as each new release came to town. The find most likely came from one of the three big movie houses in Berwick during that era, Smith said.
From what the auction buyer was able to ascertain, the valuable stack of Hollywood history was inside a home whose contents were being liquidated as part of an estate sale, he said.
The trove includes extraordinarily rare original posters from the 1931 films "The Public Enemy," "Cimarron," "The Front Page" and "Little Caesar." Some are versions never before seen, while others are among only one or two other known copies. All measure roughly 27 by 41 inches, known in movie parlance as a one-sheet.
James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Barbara Stanwyck are among the matinee idols gracing several posters but Bela Lugosi, bug-eyed and menacing in the 1931 ad for horror classic "Dracula," counts as the star of the auction with a starting bid of $200,000.
An identical poster owned by actor Nicholas Cage sold at auction in 2009 for $310,000.
The films in the posters date from 1930 and 1931, a uniquely permissive time for filmmaking that came after the adoption of sound but before the enforcement of stringent moral guidelines popularly known as the Hays Code. Movies from the "pre-Code" era of roughly 1929 to 1934 include sex, violence and social commentary that vanished as the Hays Code censored everything from religious criticism to "suggestive postures."
The Humphrey Bogart-John Huston version of "The Maltese Falcon," for example, was a remake of the 1931 original, which was later deemed lewd under the Hays Code for nudity and sexual references and banned from re-release. A poster for the earlier "Falcon," featuring smooching leads Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez, is also part of the sale and the auctioneers say it's the only one known to exist.
"They were purely a product to be disposed of. ... They're not something anyone would have thought to save," Smith said in explaining the scarcity of movie ephemera of the era. Berwick had three large movie houses in the early 1930s and the posters likely came from one of them, he said.
For collectors, a find like the Berwick posters is "like a dream come true," said Bob King, editor of Classic Images, an Iowa-based periodical devoted to pre-1960s film and television.
"When (a discovery like) this happens, it's a big deal because you never know when or if it'll happen again," he said. "Are they ever going to find another one like this? Maybe not."