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What Are They Worth?

All is not as it seems in the strange world of rock-poster art collecting

By Steve Bjerklie

In the portentous, fog-bleary summer of 1980, just before the presidential election of a man whose mug once graced movie posters (a time when the nation agreed: greed is good), dance-hall keeper Bill Graham made plans to commemorate two upcoming concert runs he was producing for his favorite band, the Grateful Dead, with two special-edition posters. These posters weren't for advertising purposes but would be sold to show-goers--"vanity" posters, as they're called in the collecting trade. Graham assigned Peter Barsotti, who worked for the impresario (and who still works for Bill Graham Presents, or BGP), and artist Dennis Larkins to design the new posters, which trumpeted a three-week series of shows across late September and early October by the Dead at the gaping old Warfield Theater on Market Street and a following similar series at New York's venerable Radio City Music Hall.

Both posters feature the Dead's essential iconography. In the Warfield version, a 12-story "Skeleton Sam" wears a stars-and-stripes Uncle Sam top hat and leans casually on the left side of the theater building as another 12-story skeleton crowned with a wreath of roses leans on the right. The Radio City version has the same two skeletons in the same configuration leaning against the music hall. Near the bottom of the posters, long lines of Deadheads--Barsotti and Larkins drew some of them as caricatures of BGP employees--clog the sidewalks in front of the theaters. Scrawled across the marquee in the Warfield poster is Bill Graham's famous elliptical quote about the Dead: "They're not the best at what they do, they're the only ones that do what they do."

The press run for each poster was limited to several thousand copies. Neither poster was ever reprinted by BGP--in fact, the Radio City version became an instant collector's item when the management of the theater balked at the image of skeletons leaning on their landmark building and requested that BGP destroy its stocks. The Warfield version also became a collector's item eventually, much to my delight. A friend had given me and my bride tickets to one of the Warfield shows as a wedding present, and we bought a souvenir copy of the poster from a booth in the theater's lobby, just as Bill Graham wanted us to. Our new poster got added to the small collection of San Francisco rock posters I had started years ago, when I was a kid following the Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore West poster reps into record stores to pick up fresh handbills.

San Francisco rock & roll posters are more than colorful graphic images. They are visual, tactile representations of an age, of a style, of a way of living in the world that once compelled legions of kids to head West. They swirl, they startle, they stun. Thumb through a pile of posters and dozens of legendary nights jump to the eye: the Grateful Dead sharing the Fillmore West stage with the Miles Davis Quintet; Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin opening for Howlin' Wolf; a Jefferson Airplane, Dead and Quicksilver bill on New Year's Eve. History doesn't still just live in the old posters, it still dances. Wildly.

By 1994, with the Dead more popular than ever in the band's 30-year history, Artrock, a storefront poster shop on Mission Street in San Francisco, offered the Warfield Barsotti/Larkins poster for sale for $400, which at the time was an extraordinarily high price for a rock & roll poster of barely teenage vintage. But when Jerry Garcia died in August 1995 and the Grateful Dead's psychedelic circus finally shut down for good, the price for any piece of paper bearing the words "Grateful Dead" went crazy. By last November when Artrock, now expanded at its Mission Street location into a full-scale gallery and catalog-sales outlet, hosted the opening of "The Art of the Dead," an exhibit of poster art featuring the Grateful Dead that will cross the country over the next two years, the price of the Warfield poster had climbed to $950 in the Artrock catalog. My bride and I had bought it at the show for $20. Its value, alas, has had better luck than the marriage.

But what is the real value of this poster? It is, after all, a print, and thousands of copies were originally made. Even in the early days of the San Francisco rock & roll ballroom scene, which fostered psychedelic posters as advertising display art, print runs were relatively high. On the original artwork for BG No. 32, displayed in "The Art of the Dead," artist Wes Wilson penciled "2500m" in the margin to remind the pressman to run 2,500 copies of the black-and-white poster, featuring a photo of Garcia surrounded by Wilson's bulbous lettering, to advertise a Dead show at the Fillmore in October 1966.

(Poster collectors, with the help of the original show producers, have established a helpful poster numbering system. Posters for Bill Graham­produced shows at the Fillmore auditorium, Winterland arena, Fillmore West and other San Francisco and Bay Area venues from 1966 to 1971 are numbered in order and prefixed "BG." Posters for 1966­68 shows produced by the Family Dog collective, first at the Fillmore and then at the Avalon Ballroom, are also numbered in order, prefixed "FD." The Dog also booked a ballroom in Denver in 1968; these posters are signified "FD D.")

Later posters were printed in greater quantities, to the point where stacks of them were kept in storage by Graham and the Dog's nominal chief executive, Chet Helms. Moreover, most of the posters were reprinted by BGP and the Family Dog, the reprint editions often numbering in the tens of thousands. Reprints bring a lower price, of course, than first editions, but only when a reprint is distinguishable from an original (both BGP and the Family Dog clearly designated their authorized reprints as such). BGP still owns the print negatives for most of the posters for shows the company has produced since 1966, which is to say that if it chose to, BGP could reprint again, though the company's executive in charge of posters and archives, Jerry Pompili, says he won't.

But since most of the stashes of original editions were discovered and sold years ago, and since BGP will not, says Pompili, sell off its remaining stocks of originals, the temptation to reprint is huge, especially with prices soaring. After Garcia's death, the thousand-dollar line was quickly broached by "Blue Rose," a vanity poster drawn by Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley for the closing of Winterland in 1978 (a BGP show), and the brilliant, disturbing "Trip or Freak" graphic from 1967, a collaborative effort by Mouse, Kelley and Rick Griffin featuring a leering image of Lon Chaney in full Phantom of the Opera makeup.

Prices for nearly all Grateful Dead poster collectibles--the Philip Garris owl-and-skull tombstone tableau for a 1976 BGP Grateful Dead/Who show at the Oakland Coliseum; the striking wing-and-pyramid Mouse/Kelley poster for the Dead's series of 1978 shows in Egypt; and of course FD No. 26, the poster Mouse and Kelley prepared for the Avalon Ballroom in 1966 that associated the skull-and-roses icon with the Grateful Dead for the first time--are in the stratosphere. Other rarities also rocketed in value. An original copy of a handbill advertising one of the San Francisco Mime Troupe benefits that Bill Graham organized, the parties that introduced Graham to rock & roll, sold recently for $5,000. Unsurprisingly, not only have the choicest posters been reprinted, they've been bootlegged as well, often by extremely good counterfeiters.

"What it all comes down to is that you have nothing but someone's word that a poster is original and not a reprint or a fake," patiently explains Jorn Weigelt, a San Mateo dealer in fine-art posters. Last November, Weigelt's firm, The Poster Connection, hosted the first auction in San Francisco of collectible poster art. Inside the Chinatown Holiday Inn, collectors, decorators and the curious bid on hundreds of rare prints drawn by the likes of Abbot, Steinlen, and Troxler--classic fin de siecle and early 20th-century display art. The auction was a huge success: 85 percent of the lots sold, with a top price of $4,600 bid for a seductive red-hued Bitter Campari poster from 1900.

"You are dependent on the dealer," continues Weigelt, whose father is a fine-art poster dealer in Germany. "I mean, how would you know? Why would you know? And the dealers--just because someone's a dealer doesn't mean they know either." Weigelt says that fakes have been a problem on occasion in the fine-art market. "There are a lot of Lautrecs hanging in people's living rooms that they paid $10,000 for. They look real, but aren't."

A new organization, the International Vintage Poster Dealers Association, was incorporated this year; one of its central purposes is to deal with fakes. "The knowledge of fakes is limited," Weigelt comments. "The organization will provide dealers with an opportunity to share information."

Does he think San Francisco rock posters will develop into a fine-art market for collectors? "Perhaps. But the market has to be clean. If there's a lot of uncertainty about what's real and what isn't, and if collectors are unsure about certain dealers, the market may not develop but remain a hobby for enthusiasts. Long-lasting markets get that way when everyone's sure of what they're buying."

But, as Weigelt points out, there's no way to be sure. There's nothing, in the end, but someone's word, as insubstantial as a ghost. Thirty years after the golden era of the psychedelic rock poster in San Francisco, the posters still available for sale to collectors and souvenir buyers comprise a wispy, tangled web of originals, reprints, bootlegs and out-and-out fakes. And in the middle of that web is the owner of the negatives for nearly all the classic Family Dog posters, the largest rock & roll poster dealer in the world: Artrock.

"Artrock's cornered the market and they set the prices," says John Goddard, proprietor of Village Music in Mill Valley, one of the best rock & roll record stores in the world, which has been selling posters since the 1960s. "That's not necessarily good, but that's the way it is." Artrock has, among other market developments, established $35 as the base price for a copy of most of the Family Dog posters--that is, $35 for a reprint of early numbers and $35 for an original copy of later numbers, which are less sought after. (Artrock's creation of a floor price is a curious echo, by the way, of an innovation in another market. Chet Helms, before he got into the rock & roll business at the Avalon Ballroom, is the man in the mid-1960s who set $10 as the basic price for a lid of grass.)

Goddard himself has no quarrel with Artrock, but points out that a lot of rumors regarding the dealer might be the result of people coming in to Artrock with a poster to sell, seeing another copy of the poster on Artrock's wall for a fat price, but then being offered only a few bucks by the store. "They think they should get half the sticker price, but what they don't know is that Artrock may have 50 more copies of that poster in the back. This happens to me with used records all the time."

But could Artrock or other dealers be selling reprints or even bootlegs as originals? "There's no good way to tell an original from a really good reprint," Goddard says, "if the reprint doesn't indicate that it's a reprint. Personally, I don't trust old posters that are in mint condition. That's not to say a mint-condition poster is a reprint or bootleg, but I like my old stuff with holes and scratches and tears."

He continues: "But what's a reprint, anyway? A few years ago I was down in New Orleans and got to know the printer who had printed some of the posters for the great R&B shows in the 1950s. He still had the original printing plates for the posters, and one day he uncovered a pile of 40-year-old paper in his back room. So he printed the old posters on the old paper using the original plates. Now: Are those reprints or not?" With negatives for nearly all the classic psychedelic-era posters still in existence and still owned by companies that profit by the sale of posters ... well, people have wondered.

"The major dealers don't sell bootlegs or reprints as originals," comments Grant McKinnon, general manager at S.F. Rock Posters & Collectibles on Powell in North Beach, a rock-art boutique. "They'll always come back to haunt you. But fakes are out there. A few years ago I saw copies of BG #105"--Rick Griffin's famous "Flying Eyeball" poster for an amazing 1968 BGP show featuring Albert King, John Mayall and Jimi Hendrix--"for sale on Haight Street for $5 to $10. Now, I knew those had to be fakes. It's a very valuable poster. But they were really good fakes; they looked just like the second printing. The only way you could tell was from two tiny thumb prints on the edges--something only an expert or real dealer would look for. The people who thought they were getting a deal on that poster just got burned."

McKinnon adds that it would be very difficult to get a reprint past an expert as an original. "There's still a lot of knowledge around from people who have been part of the poster scene or collectors since the beginning. The information about color variations in press runs and when the posters were actually printed is still available." He goes on to point out that the inks used to print the original posters 30 years ago differ from today's inks in their mixture of elements and in how they decay and fade. Papers, too, have changed.

McKinnon mentions the first volume of The Collector's Guide to Psychedelic Rock Concert Posters, Postcards and Handbills: 1965-1973 by Eric King, which focuses on BGP and Family Dog posters as well as on the famed "Neon Rose" series drawn by Victor Moscoso for the Matrix nightclub. The King book meticulously describes poster issues and editions, sizes, inks, paper quality and what to look for in reprints and bootlegs. Another book, the massive tome The Art of Rock: Posters from Presley to Punk, compiled by Paul Grushkin and published in 1987, is the standard reference for images. The two books together create the basic reference material in the world of rock-poster collecting.

BGP's Jerry Pompili says that he's seen "Flying Eyeball" fakes sold out of the trunks of cars "by sleazy East Coast guys." "If we see it, we're on those people like gorillas. We've been very careful with the posters over the years; they're an extremely valuable asset to BGP. No asshole is going to get a fake by us." He claims the only poster reprints BGP ever authorized were those published in the 1970s by Winterland Productions, which at the time was still a BGP subsidiary. These were sold with other rock & roll bric-a-brac in the short-lived "Bill Graham's Rock Shop" on Columbus Avenue. BGP itself owns only two complete sets of the classic series, Nos. 1 through 287, according to Pompili. A complete series is on display upstairs in the Fillmore Auditorium, though "some of the rarer" posters at the Fillmore, Pompili says, are actually photographs of originals.

Graham, in the beginning, did not see the value of the posters he was commissioning for his shows at the Fillmore. Ben Friedman, a legendary San Francisco entrepreneur (and storied crank) who had started, managed or closed dozens of businesses, convinced Graham to sell him a batch of posters for $1,000, which Friedman then told Graham he was going to turn around and sell for $2,000. Thus began a long relationship of mutual admiration and frustration, which Friedman also extended to the Family Dog.

By the time the ballrooms closed (the Avalon in 1968, Fillmore West in 1971), Friedman owned the biggest inventory of rock posters in the world. Some he bought for only ten cents each and sold in his Postermat shop on Columbus for several dollars. Some, including FD No. 14 (known as "Zig Zag Man") and FD No. 26, he is reputed to have reprinted on his own--bootlegged, in a word. By the time he wanted to get out of the business because of failing health, Friedman owned hundreds of thousands of posters; he had posters in storage by the pallet-load. Facing hefty medical bills, he sold the bulk of his inventory to another businessman, Philip Cushway, who made the purchase on behalf of the store Cushway owns, Artrock.

Bill Graham's Rock Shop poster inventory was picked up by another savvy businessman, John Burn, who had also bought bits and pieces of the Friedman stash over the years. Burn had the eye: "He cleaned everybody out of the best stuff," says one poster dealer. The Rock Shop purchase and other buys fattened Burn's personal poster inventory to 100,000 pieces. He eventually sold all of them to the envious dealer: Philip Cushway.

Stories and rumors swirl around Philip Cushway like Wes Wilson lettering. Jude Heller, who worked for the Grateful Dead for several years, had a run-in with Cushway after accusing him of selling official GD merchandise without authorization. "He came out and did his little song and dance," says Heller, who is now advertising director for KFOG. "It was a joke. We had to issue a cease-and-desist order."

One of the first Artrock employees, Kevin Plamondon, says, "Philip Cushway won't sell you Eric King's book. You have to go somewhere else, like to Grant, to get a copy. Cushway doesn't want you to be an expert. That's giving you power. He wants all the power so he can control the transaction."

Plamondon has seen those transactions up close many hundreds of times. He joined the business back in 1987 when it was still based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Plamondon, in fact, located and procured for Artrock many small but quite valuable poster stashes in the Bay Area. He left Cushway in 1995 after a bitter fight over Plamondon's involvement with Man's Ruin, the marketing company for the posters of Frank Kozik, who almost single-handedly revived rock & roll poster art in San Francisco with his ravishing Day-Glo images for New Wave and alternative bands. Plamondon had brought Kozik to Artrock's attention, but after a time Kozik felt he could market his work better on his own and persuaded Plamondon to help him.

Plamondon, who eventually returned to Michigan, remains bitter in service to the poster art he loves. "Philip Cushway has no curatorial abilities," the former Artrock employee says. "Look, this whole thing is built on faith and trust, which can be easily shattered."

Philip Cushway holds my business card for a long minute, staring at the name, even though I've made an appointment and am here, in the Artrock gallery, at our agreed-upon time. He damn well knows who I am. "Oh, yeah," he finally says, stretching the vowels for dramatic effect. "You're the guy who's running around town spreading rumors that I'm selling bootlegs. Why are you doing that? I'm considering legal action, you know." I've had interviews begin better.

Up in his spacious office, the biggest, most successful dealer of rock & roll posters in the world is more congenial. Framed vintage "boxing style" posters for James Brown ("Mr. Dynamite!") shows at the Apollo Theater in New York and other venues line the wall above the black leather couch where we sit, just above Cushway's graying, curly-haired head. He's a thick, gregarious Illinois native with Buddy Holly glasses. A friend who knows him says, "Phil seems like an interesting guy, weirdly charming and a tad spooky."

"I got into the poster business to bring order to it," Cushway tells me on the couch. "Before me there were no catalogs, no 800-numbers for ordering, no credit-card orders, no real system of buying and selling rock posters. I created all that." He sets a cold can of soda on his coffee table, which, I notice after a second glance, is a coffin. "I'm into the shape, or maybe I just like gothic," he answers to my obvious question. I'm a bit disarmed, more so when I see that Cushway's smiling at me.

"Look, I've worked very hard at this." Now he glares, this "spooky" man who says he's in the office by 3:30 or 4 every morning ("my natural hours"). "It would be suicidal for me to do something like sell bootlegs. Why would I want to undercut the value of my own product?" Later, he tells me he doesn't even really like the posters--"they make collectors go crazy; they're like a narcotic"--but simply wanted to become "the biggest and the best." Still later, Cushway says without explanation: "I'm not in posters to make money."

But he has, by the bucket, by doing exactly what he himself states was his goal: "to control the market." One of the reasons Cushway brought his operation from Ann Arbor to California in the late 1980s was to buy the Friedman and Burn stashes. Those, and many others, have given him more than a million pieces of inventory. He moved also to be in the center of the best rock-poster collecting market anywhere.

The three-floor Artrock gallery occupies 25,000 square feet; the firm also rents space elsewhere in San Francisco for what Cushway calls "the Vault," his storage place for Artrock's inventory of classic posters. Down in the basement of the gallery, Cushway waves his hand at shelves and pallets of posters. "I've got 500,000 pieces of inventory in this building alone." Posters are piled in three-foot, four-foot, six-foot stacks, like bales of hay. "You get 100 posters to the inch," Cushway says, "1,200 to the foot."

The Artrock catalog also sells T-shirts (which are piled in Gap-like abundance), stamps and other rock paraphernalia. Along one wall in the basement I notice a small mountain range of unlabeled cardboard boxes rising from a pallet. "Mounted Beatles photos," I'm told. "All signed by Pete Best," the Beatles' first drummer. "Now there's a guy who really got screwed."

I ask about Kevin Plamondon. "I won't talk about him," frowns Plamondon's former employer. "Kevin did some things he shouldn't have." Man's Ruin? "I won't talk about it."

Later Cushway drives me over to the Vault, swearing me to secrecy on the location. On the way he explains that he might soon leave the poster business, but he won't say what interests him.

He opens the Vault, an unmarked room in a nondescript building. It's crammed tight with metal shelving, all of it sagging under the weight of posters.

Not just posters, but thousands of posters, classic posters, stacks and rows and folios of them. From an inch-thick pile he pulls out a crisp, mint copy of a BGP poster for a 1969 Doors show, autographed in silver ink by Randy Tuten, the poster's artist. It's for sale in the Artrock catalog for $125. Everywhere on the shelves are thick folios of classic numbers--FD No. 14, No. 26, No. 45--neatly shelved like books in a library. The inventory is both jaw-dropping and depressing. The truth is, there are no rarities, nothing of which Artrock doesn't already own dozens or hundreds or thousands of copies. The question of bootlegs and reprints flooding the market is moot. Artrock owns the market. Whether or not San Francisco rock & roll poster art develops into a fine-art market in the future depends entirely on how Artrock chooses to manage the market now and what happens to Artrock's inventory after the gallery and Cushway are gone. Prices could be at their peak right now.

As we leave the Vault, I begin to think about who's winning and who's losing in all this. Certainly Cushway's winning--he's won it all. The stuffed Vault is proof. Boutique dealers like McKinnon, with a devoted and loyal collector clientele, are winning, too, at least as long as the market's good and buyers linger. But the poster artists themselves aren't winners, since they long ago signed away the rights for their classic work to Bill Graham and Chet Helms (though some dealers, including Artrock, have commissioned new work from the likes of Kelley, Mouse and Griffin).

The casual small-time collectors aren't winning either, for they can only sell their collectibles for the prices established by the dealers if they happen to find someone who will pay market value piecemeal. Artrock has too many copies of everything already. It can underprice anyone if it chooses to. The small-time collectors who picked up their posters at shows or pulled them off of telephone polls or out of store windows have as their best asset memories of the music and that amazing time in San Francisco.

Then it struck me who has lost the most, though he doesn't even know it. Some years ago, a book publisher gave an artist named Edmund Sullivan a copy of Edward Fitzgerald's new translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam to illustrate. Sullivan drew exquisite ink images for nearly all the poem's luscious, sensuous quatrains, including, as it happens, number 26. "One thing is certain, and the rest is lies," the quatrain concludes. "The flower that once has blown for ever dies." Sullivan drew the flower; he made it a bundle of roses. He bordered his drawing, in fact, with bushes of roses. He drew a wreath of roses, too. This Sullivan placed on the head of the image he drew to represent the quatrain's final word--a full skeleton grinning through stony, clenched teeth.

Edmund Sullivan died years before Jerry Garcia was born. He never knew that one day his image would be found by poster artist Stanley Mouse in the basement of the San Francisco Public Library in an old 19th-century edition of The Rubáiyát. He never knew that his "skull-and-roses" image, as it came to be called, would become, as a result of Mouse's use of it in FD No. 26, the world's most recognizable popular music icon.

Sullivan does not know that a first-run copy of FD No. 26 sells nowadays for $1,500 to $2,500, depending on condition. He did not know about the copyright act, about the potential for plagiarism beyond his lifetime, about public domain. He never knew that tens of thousands of dollars would be spent, and more money still will be spent, buying and selling the quintessential San Francisco psychedelic-era rock & roll poster, FD No. 26. He never knew that of all those tens of thousands of dollars spent on his skull and roses, his estate and his heirs and his descendants would see not a single penny.

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From the March 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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