Mystery collector to cash in on rare retro travel posters

They represent a time capsule from the golden age of travel; vintage advertising posters which evoke a bygone era of tourism in an age of steam trains, oceans liners and propellered aircraft.

The unique collection of almost 200 of these posters, dating from the late '20s to the early '60s, will go under the hammer in New York on Wednesday morning (Australian time) when Swann Auction Galleries kicks off its 14th annual Rare & Important Travel Posters sale.

About 50 of the lots are Australian-themed travel posters either produced by railway and tourism bodies or shipping companies and airlines, and all but two of them belong to an Australian who has been amassing a formidable collection of these types of posters over the past few decades.

In all, just under half of all the lots up for sale come from the collection of the anonymous Australian.

Rare lots

The artists are graphic artists, well known by aficionados, but hardly household names except for William Dobell, whose 1938 poster of a surfer made for a shipping line is expected to fetch in excess of $US4000.

That's a paltry figure compared with some of his later art works, but says Nicholas D. Lowry, Swann's president and principal auctioneer, this was mass-produced, disposable commercial art made to be posted on hoardings and hung in travel agencies.

"They were ephemeral by nature," he says in a telephone interview. "But thanks to some very forward thinking people many, many years ago, who decided to keep these very large pieces of paper, we now have a fantastic collection."

Mr Lowry, who is also the director of Swann's vintage posters department, says that some of the lots are so rare that they will not be found among the National Museum of Australia's extensive collection of graphic art.

"I've been in this business for more than 20 years and this [auction] marks two firsts: It is the largest collection of Australian posters to come up for public sale and it is, in my opinion, definitely the best collection of Australian posters to ever come on the market."

Mr Lowry says lot 65, a poster by Percy Trompf, encouraging tourist to visit Australia to see the Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction, is among his favourite items.

"This is a poster of a construction site," he points out. "It's like a technological visual paean to progress. We have not found another copy for sale at auction, so it's very rare."

Record prices

Mr Lowry says the highest price ever paid for an Australian poster was set in 2011 when a collector paid $US20,000 bought for a modernist poster created by an Estonian emigre called Gert Sellheim.

Another copy of the same poster - lot 93 - will go up for auction with more modest expectations of a price of around $US7500.

"If truth be told, because this collection is so good and because there's so much attention on this auction within the travel poster community it's likely that we are going to see a number of pieces break the $US10,000 mark," Mr Lowry says.

The auction also features an extensive range of British and European travel posters, some of which are also owned by the same anonymous Australian collector.

The poster with the highest estimate is lot 27, a Gatsbyesque poster by renown graphic artist Rogers Broders from the 1930s exhorting tourist to visit the French port of Dunkirk. This piece has an expected sale price of around $US20,000.

The live auction is also being hosted on eBay, giving the online retailer's 149 million users worldwide the opportunity to bid on the lots from 4.30am, AEDT on Wednesday.