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Devoted movie poster collector sees an art form waiting to be discovered

Mark Caro | Chicago Tribune
Mark Caro | Chicago Tribune
Movie poster collector Dwight Cleveland unrolls a poster for "The Lone Ranger Rides Again" at his home in Chicago, Ill., March 6, 2012.
By Mark Caro, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Dwight Cleveland doesn’t expect to sell all 35,000 of his movie posters to a museum, a philanthropist or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Even he realizes that would be a bit much.

So he has winnowed his collection to what he calls the core archive that consists of 11,000-plus posters from 55 countries, including, often in multiple versions, every Oscar best picture winner, the American Film Institute’s and Internet Movie Database’s top 100 films each, “cult favorites that may or may not be on any of those lists” and, finally, he said, “great artwork.”

Here’s what Cleveland, a boyish, 52-year-old Lincoln Park-based real estate developer on hiatus, would like to see happen: Steven Spielberg or George Lucas or some other wealthy film-related figure gives him something like $2 million for the archive and then donates it to the academy, the Library of Congress or some museum or school. The institution would use the collection to attract visitors, encourage scholarship and, ultimately, engender a far greater appreciation of the artistic and cultural value of movie posters.

And the hobby that has consumed Cleveland for 35 years would be elevated to the level of “art” or, as a collectible, the level of comic books or baseball cards.

But the clock is ticking. As a real estate agent, Cleveland sold his last home in 2008 and doesn’t see resuming his business until the housing market bounces back, which he thinks still may be awhile. Since then he has been devoted to his collection full time, but said he’s just about ready to give up and to sell off the posters piecemeal.

This is the nuclear option. Collecting, by definition, is putting things together to create a meaningful whole.

“It’s an important piece of cinematic history, and I think it would be very difficult to duplicate it,” he said.

So he doesn’t want to blow it all up just for the money.

But the money would help.

Gabriela Cleveland didn’t know her future husband had obtained her family’s permission to propose to her almost 23 years ago when he flew in for the weekend from Chicago to New York, where she was clerking as a young lawyer. She didn’t know it by the time he left, either.

Upon landing in New York, Dwight Cleveland learned that some rare Mickey Mouse posters, including one for the very early short “Barn Dance,” were about to go up for auction in Des Moines, Iowa, so the following morning he hopped another plane, the ring still in his pocket.

“Of course that took precedence, and it was fine,” said Gabriela Cleveland, now a commercial real estate lawyer. “It is a rare Mickey Mouse poster.”

He proposed in Chicago a couple of weeks later. By then she knew what she was getting into.

“On our first trip together up to Maine, I sat in a car while he stopped at every antique shop on the way,” she recalled. “I learned after that never to travel without my books.”

To Dwight Cleveland, who grew up in the affluent New York suburb of Bronxville and attended the University of Chicago’s business school, the hobby is as much about the search as the find.

“I love what the French call la chasse,” he said. “It’s a big thrill for me to find things that nobody knows is out there. The way I get most of my stuff is going out to flea markets at 5 in the morning and going to antique stores and traveling in obscure places and stopping and seeing an old theater and finding out who owned it and tracking down the relatives.”

Unlike collectors who start out seeking their favorite films or stars, Cleveland said he fell for the artwork first. In 1977, the year he graduated from high school, his poster-collecting art teacher acquired a lobby card for the 1929 film “Wolf Song” that shows co-stars Gary Cooper and Lupe Velez locking eyes before a geometric art deco backdrop.

Cleveland was so determined to extricate that lobby card from him that he loaded up on other rare posters to execute a “global trade” with the teacher that included “Wolf Song.” He was just getting started.

From the late ’70s through the mid-’90s, before trading and auctioning moved primarily to the Web, Cleveland was running classified ads in publications worldwide. He said he received 15-20 pieces of poster-related mail daily, most offering “utter garbage” but some presenting “fantastic deals.” His home, a vintage high-ceiling Lincoln Park Victorian house that he renovated in the early ’90s through his company, Longstreet Renovation and Development, is a monument to his collecting prowess.

Step through the foyer, and you encounter one of what he said are just two known copies of a large Italian “Casablanca” poster that took him nine years and $5,000 to pry away from a Rome collector. In the dining room is a Czech poster for the 1933 “King Kong” boasting an especially big image of the oversize gorilla plus a scantily clad Fay Wray. Cleveland said it may be his most expensive acquisition, costing him in the $30,000-to-$40,000 range.

Movie art lines the stairwells and landings, including a huge alternative-version poster for “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) created by the Other Company rather than Warner Bros, a Hungarian “Stagecoach” (1939), the Marilyn Monroe-dominated Italian poster for the 1948 movie “Ladies of the Chorus” (“Orchidea Bionda”), one for Buster Keaton’s “The General” (1926) featuring an Alvan “Hap” Hadley caricature and an original German poster for Josef von Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel” (“Der Blaue Engel,” 1930).

In the basement media room and adjacent office, you must take care not to trip over the many rolled posters and stacks of folded ones. Mickey Mouse’s “Barn Dance” is on the wall, along with D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), with its depiction of a Klansman on horseback (“It’s incredibly offensive,” Cleveland acknowledged), and a brilliantly colored poster touting Milton Sills in “Men of Steel” (1926) and depicting one guy punching another in the face.

To Cleveland, “Men of Steel” illustrates a key problem with his hobby. Although Sills and that silent film are long forgotten, the poster is a beautiful stone lithograph that the collector argues should be judged on its artistic merits.

“That’s a poster that should sell for 10,000 bucks at some point, when people really understand how important the artwork is,” Cleveland said. “Then they’ll realize this is a great example of early lithography, and it will rise. Now if it’s just going to be valued by movie people, they’re not going to think it’s so important.”

Cleveland and other collectors are having trouble convincing the world of movie posters’ importance in general.

“It’s certainly not regarded as high art, and the collectors market is very unsophisticated,” said Dave Kehr, The New York Times’ DVD writer and a longtime collector of vintage movie posters. “The stuff that goes for the most money is the Universal horror movies because that’s what people liked as kids, and the other stuff that goes for big money are Three Stooges posters, most of which are crappy duotone photo montages with stock lettering.”

Spencer Weisz Galleries in the River West neighborhood specializes in antique posters but carries relatively few for movies.

“I treat them as redheaded stepchildren,” gallery owner Spencer Weisz said. “I treat them as decorative. They’re great for your man cave. I’m selling them to the people with the fancy homes and the fancy movie theaters.”

Yet while movie posters routinely are categorized as collectibles, interest in and prices for them don’t approach those for comic books or baseball cards, even if the posters are scarcer.

“When you talk about comic books, they were printed in hundreds of thousands, even in the earliest days,” said Grey Smith, director of vintage movie poster auctions for the Dallas-based Heritage Auctions.

In contrast, in the 1920s-’50s movie posters heyday, print runs tended to be in the 6,000-to-12,000 range, while some road-show productions perhaps approached 40,000 copies, he said. The posters usually were printed on flimsy pulp and often were slapped on fences and city walls and torn down afterward.

“Comic books were meant to be collected and saved, as were ball cards,” Smith said. “Movie posters were never intended for the public use or consumption.”

So, yes, Smith agrees with Cleveland that movie posters are undervalued and underappreciated.

“My best-case scenario,” Cleveland said, “is that someone really famous would buy it who was well financed and that their name would elevate this whole hobby to a whole new level and that they would be able to establish a gallery at a museum, a major art museum.

“I wish I could afford to donate it myself, but I can’t. It’s just too big an asset for me. So I want it to really be somebody else’s legacy. And I feel like I’ve done the hard part.”

He estimated that he has spent more than $2 million to create his collection and that the Archive has been appraised for $3.5 million, but “I’m willing to take a lot under 2 for it.”

He has approached Spielberg, Lucas and other high-profile movie types, as well as “any investment banker or financial analyst that is involved in any of those mega movie deals, all those guys like Carl Icahn.”

He said he gave 1,100 pre-1945 American one-sheets (“about $250,000 worth of stuff”) to the academy last year because “I wanted to take a tax deduction, but I also was using it to prime the pump,” though the academy hasn’t moved to connect him with a potential patron. Likewise, he said, there has been no action since he gave the Library of Congress thousands of pre-1940 lobby cards, window cards and glass slides.

He has approached the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art and museums in other cities and states. He sent a proposal to Mayor Rahm Emanuel with the heading: “I’ll Donate $1.75M If You Raise $1.75M For Acquisition,” meaning that Cleveland would accept half of the $3.5 million appraisal price if the city lined up a buyer for his posters to be displayed locally.

“Someone could triangulate between Columbia College and the Film Departments at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago,” Cleveland wrote to Emanuel. “If your brother Ari [who runs Hollywood’s WME talent agency] were involved, it could easily connect with the film schools in Los Angeles and throughout the world.”

The mayor didn’t bite.

“It could be a graphic arts library,” Cleveland said of the collection. “It could be a whole division at a film school, studying graphic art of film posters around the world from 114 years. There are so many different options, and I’ve played all of those out.”

And he’s still sitting on 35,000 posters.

“He’s dreaming if he thinks someone’s going to keep them, archive them and show them together,” the gallery owner said. “It’ll never happen. No one can afford to. The only people who can pay that kind of money will do it for resale.”

Cleveland acknowledged he can continue banging his head against this particular wall for only so long. He was featured in the February edition of the luxury publication the Robb Report and told himself that he would wait for the issue to have been out for about a month before he considered waving the white flag.

“We’re right there,” he said.

As a trial balloon — and because “I needed to raise a little money” — Cleveland is offering 84 posters in Heritage’s March 23-24 Dallas Vintage Movie Poster Auction, and if they sell well, he may pursue such a path further.

“My backup strategy is going to Christie’s and Sotheby’s and Heritage,” he said. “It’s not like my fallback position is so bad.”

Yet Cleveland is a collector, not a divider. This month he bought two items online: posters showing local theater listings for “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and “Apocalypse Now.” They weren’t that expensive and perhaps aren’t that valuable, but he’d never seen them before and had to have them.

Let’s face facts: If some angel bought his entire collection and donated it to a museum today, he’d be back looking at posters tomorrow.

Cleveland laughed at the suggestion and didn’t argue.

“If it ends up in an institution,” he said, “of course I’m going to still be buying stuff and saying, ‘I know you guys don’t own this’ — and I’ll donate it to them because I think it should be there.”

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