Forget what you've been reading about the crash of the art market. Movie posters, Hollywood's version of still lifes, are setting record prices and luring new investors. On Dec. 11, Christie's East of New York City auctioned 271 of the arty advertisements to a capacity crowd, and every poster was sold, some for thousands more than anticipated. Christie's estimated the rare 1921 poster of the German classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari would go for between $25,000 and $30,000; in fact, a private collector paid $34,000. ''There's no sign of recession in this room,'' said one bidder. You needn't spend a fortune to dabble in posters, nonetheless. Top-quality prints both classic and campy sell for as little as $50, though more commonly they cost between $200 and $3,000.
Even with buys like those still around, the auction at Christie's certified a fabulous boom in the poster market. Many posters had soared in value by 500 percent or more in the '80s. Just three years ago, posters for the 1955 B movie The Beast With a Million Eyes sold for $25 to $40 each. Recently they've gone for as much as $300. Movie posters have even attracted professional investors such as Bruce Hershenson, 38, who in 1988 gave up his seat trading options on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange to become a full-time poster dealer and collector. ''I thought about investing in comic books, because I loved them when I was a teenager,'' says Hershenson. ''But after I saw that comics had become a big, organized business, I got into posters.''
The lack of an organized movie-poster market makes investing chancy for novices, particularly now that both genuine and ersatz movie memorabilia often show up in gift shops and at flea markets. ''The poster market is very volatile today,'' says Michael Barson, a collector and author of three movie-poster books. ''There is a lot of speculation, and posters don't have a standard grading system or an accepted price list.'' Connoisseurs believe that although the days of wild price appreciation are over, some posters will grow in value by roughly 10 percent a year in the '90s. The trick is knowing the lingo, which posters are worth buying, and at what price.
In general, the most valuable posters are ones made before 1940 and still in tip-top condition. Many pre-1940 posters were painstakingly crafted by artists and reproduced through a costly process known as stone lithography. Christie's estimates that the studios made between 7,000 and 12,000 such posters for the average movie, but many have deteriorated or been discarded, making the pristine ones especially salable. Collectors say a poster like the 27-by-41-inch Frankenstein (1931), with bolts-in-the-neck Boris Karloff, could go for a cool $50,000 if one were for sale. Ira Resnick, owner of the Motion Picture Arts Gallery in New York City, believes a poster for Twentieth Century, the 1934 Carole Lombard-John Barrymore classic, might now be worth $10,000. ''I know of only two that have surfaced,'' he says.