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Magazine cover art: the rest of the story: publishing companies and art vendors alike are discovering the potential of this vintage market

Magazine cover art: the rest of the story: publishing companies and art vendors alike are discovering the potential of this vintage market

Julie Mehta

Look at the generic celebrity shots draped in cover lines that overrun today’s news-stands, and it’s hard to imagine an era when magazine covers were designed to be anything more than an advertising tool. Yet a survey of the major magazine covers of the early 20th century reveals a stunning array of lush, evocative illustrations that have become highly collectible artworks.

“Few people have ever seen them, but covers from the 1920s and ’30s are striking because a lot of them were influenced by Abstract Expressionism and Cubism,” said Bob Mankoff, president of Cartoonbank.com and cartoon editor for The New Yorker, one of the few magazines that continues to feature illustrated covers.

“They were a splash of color,” said Wilbur Pierce, president of BuyEnlarge.com, a Philadelphia-based wholesale distributor of magazine cover reproductions. “People didn’t have color TV back then, so color was brought into the home through magazines. Some of the greatest art done by American illustrators was in this form.”

These covers were a snapshot of the events, attitudes and styles of a particular moment in time. Yet that very specificity also made them ephemeral; they were read and thrown away. Those in the know about this golden era of magazine cover art have traditionally had to root around musty used bookstores, scavenge flea markets or, more recently, bid on online auctions to acquire old issues. Occasionally, past covers, including those of Vogue, MAD, The Saturday Evening Post, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker, have been released in book compilations. But with the continued interest in all things vintage and the growth of digital scanning technology, magazine publishers have begun offering high-end prints as vibrant as when the covers were hot off the press, while online retail sites are pushing cheaper reproductions to fit into design schemes from the dorm room to the boardroom.

A Collector’s Item

At the forefront of this movement is Cartoonbank.com, which displays more than 3,000 New Yorker covers in a searchable database. Prints sell for $250 matted and $350 framed and have been steadily growing in popularity since they went on sale in 2000, according to Vice President Andy Pillsbury. “Our customers are usually a New Yorker reader or related to one. People often request a cover from a certain time in their life–the week they got married or the week their son went off to college.”

Spurred by The New Yorker’s success, Condenastart.com was launched to showcase old covers from other Conde Nast magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, House & Garden, Gourmet and the now-defunct Mademoiselle. Priced similarly to The New Yorker’s cover prints, they are browsable by by decade, by artist or by categories such as “Personality Cavalcade” or “Pleasures of the Table.” What’s startling is how little type there is–just the title and date–which makes the cover more of a canvas than a billboard. And the images are eye-catching, from the sumptuous Henry Stahlhut Gourmet illustrations of desserts to the stylized caricaturish Vanity Fair designs by Miguel Covarrubias and A.H. Fish to the sleek, paper-doll-like figures of Vogue by Georges Lepape and Pierre Brissaud.

The, Vogue covers are especially popular among distributors. Graphique De France began selling these covers three years ago, and “they’re still performing fairly well,” according to Customer Services Supervisor Jeff Lipman. “Old-time advertising and covers are becoming more popular. Baby boomers are looking for nostalgia, things they remember from their youth.”

Image Conscious, a San-Francisco-based distributor, also has done well with its selection of Vogue covers from 1947 to 1991. “The recent ones don’t sell as well,” said Account Executive John Munnerlyn. “The best sellers are from the 1950s and ’60s. They have the vintage look that is so hot right now and tie into the popularity of French and Italian turn-of-the-century posters.”

But BuyEnlarge.com’s Pierce said the market could be a lot bigger if more magazine companies got the word out about covers dating even farther back. Barnesandnoble.com offers more than 2,000 magazine cover prints from BuyEnlarge.com, most of them from before WWII. You can buy a print of a green alien sitting on Santa’s lap from Galaxy Science Fiction or an antique-looking floral print from American Perfumer as easily as you can get a dramatic industrial graphic from Fortune or a piece of classic Americana by Norman Rockwell from The Saturday Evening Post.

That’s because BuyEnlarge.com prints on demand from its massive digital archive. Pierce said recent law changes favor corporations and license holders, but 95 percent of his company’s images are from the public domain. “We sell to lots of college students and professors who are designing to a topic like tanks or baseball,” said Pierce. “And then there’s the husband who has a train set and wants railroad pictures or the ham operator who wants an old radio magazine cover. Affinity groups are what drive this kind of sales.”

The best-quality reproductions come from lithographic prints, which contain blocks of solid color. Covers printed by modern, offset presses are made up of dots that can break apart when blown up. BuyEnlarge.com’s prices range from $19.95 for a 20- by 29-inch “dorm-size” print to $595 for a 44- by 66-inch, heavy-duty museum-size print on canvas.

Art.com’s cover art offerings are mostly from women’s magazines such as Vogue, Good Housekeeping and Redbook. “Our typical buyer is in her late 20s or 30s and is decorating,” said Marketing Manager Heather Vacek. “She may have a fondness for a specific publication. We get a ton of e-mails from people requesting a particular cover.”

So does The New Yorker, where the continued use of illustrated covers helps drive consumer interest. While prints by noted artists like Arthur Getz and Saul Steinberg attract lots of demand, the recent covers are the biggest sellers. “Our most popular cover ever was New Yorkistan,” said Mankoff. The tongue-in-cheek map of New York was published shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “It may end up generating between three-quarters of a million and a million dollars in revenue. It’s popular because of the events surrounding it.”

Kolibri Art Studios recently opened a 10,000-square-foot gallery in southern California that will permanently feature The New Yorker cover prints. “We think they make a very special, high-end gift item. Eventually we want to add Vanity Fair and Better Homes & Gardens covers,” said gallery president Herta Headrick.

The Market for Originals

A smaller but more lucrative area of the magazine cover art market is in original artwork sales. The New Yorker advertises original art on Cartoonbank.com and regularly invites collectors into its offices to view both vintage and contemporary works, which sell for between $6,000 and $15,000.

Original art sales of vintage pulp magazine covers also garner thousands of dollars, according to Daryl Danforth, who founded a Web site called The Pulp Gallery for fans of flashy detective and action magazines. “Demand for the actual paintings is also very high because so few turn up for sale. If the art was not destroyed after creating the magazines, it is kept securely in private collections,” said Danforth. “It seems like so much work went into every cover back then. Each is like a little treasure.”

So why aren’t the majority of today’s covers as memorable? “The talent is still out there to turn out great covers, but society doesn’t want to put the money into it,” said Pierce. “It costs money to hire illustrators. It’s much easier to have someone slap a cover together in Photoshop.” Magazine publishers insist covers must have star power and lots of advertising hooks to take on the growing competition on the news-stand. Whatever the reason, truly artistic magazine covers have for the most part become a thing of the past.

Ironically, despite the disposable nature of magazines, old cover art has a relevance unusual in the vintage market. “The human condition hasn’t changed much. People are interested in love, ladies’ fashion, humor and political commentary,” said Pierce. He said the key is to expose people to this wealth of forgotten art. “Whenever people see this stuff, they always like it.”

SOURCES

* Art.com, (919) 831-0015

* BuyEnlarge.com, 888-376-7600

* Graphique de France, 800-444-1464

* Image Conscious, 800-532-2333

* Kolibri Art Studios, (310) 618-8018

* The New Yorker, 800-677-6947

* New York Graphic Society, 800-897-6666

* The Pulp Gallery, magazines@pulpgallery.com

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