Grey Smith knew that he'd stumbled upon something glorious when he first got the call: batches of old movie posters were found in a Pennsylvania attic during an estate sale, glued together into slabs. Facing out of one chunk was a poster for the 1931 crime flick Little Caesar. These types of posters are rare because their movies were created pre-1934 when the Hays Code, the first collection of enforced moral censorship laws for cinema, was initiated. A life-long collector and Director of Movie Posters for Heritage Auction House's Dallas arm, Mr. Smith knew this was a big one. He told the lot's bidder to ship them all. He, personally, wanted to investigate the stacks.
When the posters arrived, they were adhered together in big, thick bundles -- layered and plastered together like pages in a book that couldn't be opened. Smith has a theory why, "In early days, people often didn't have insulation in their attics -- this was at some of the worst years of the Depression, [which] were really critical for a lot of people. I suspect that whoever took these from the theater saw a utilitarian use for them."
Once in his possession, Smith melted the glues by steaming and peeling, corner after corner and sheet after sheet. Each new lift or wrinkle would provide clues, guiding him towards the contents of the next page. At one point, Smith was happily removing a poster for Dishonored, a "nicely valued poster" when he saw the next poster's identity. It was an original one-sheet for the Jean Harlow/James Cagney flick Public Enemy, and is the only known copy in existence.
To understand why these posters are so valued, we have to revisit the era. Gritty gangster crime movies were Warner Brother's bread and butter in the late '20s and early '30s because it didn't have the funding required to compete with big-budget musicals. Instead they kept it down and dirty, telling tales of villains sporting Tommy guns. But when decency codes were brought into the game those old catalogs, and the posters which supported them, fell to the wayside. The films were unable to be re-released until the '50s due to their scandalous nature, by then new posters were created. Most of the originals had been junked, burned or collected for paper drives during WWII.
In total the haul was huge. The collection is valued at more than $250,000 dollars, which seems light considering the majority of that amount is due to a rare Dracula poster, only the fourth known copy in the world. The last time a Dracula poster was sold, it brought in $310,000. That Little Caesar poster is currently fetching $11,000 and Public Enemy has hit $24,000. The entire auction closes on Friday, March 23.