Find the value of vintage advertisements


Your dad, a devoted soda pop drinker, collected every Coca-Cola glass ever made. You got a free John Wayne movie poster in the mail as a kid, and you’ve kept it ever since. Then there’s that neon sign your spouse bought when they tore down the old local diner, the site of your first date. Mundane as they are, could these various types of advertisements be valuable? Our Savvy Specialists can tell you how well that selling device will sell itself.


With all signs – and indeed, all collectibles – condition is key. Especially with neon, since replacing it can be an expensive custom job; so, don't forget to find out if the neon sign still glows when you plug it in. To determine the value of a sign, you must consider how beat up it is, and – if it’s metal – how much rust it has. Rust can greatly reduce a sign’s value. On the other hand, tin signs are also easy to reproduce, so if a sign’s condition seems too good to be true, it probably is. (C’mon – you didn’t think all those vintage signs displayed in those chain restaurants were authentic, did you?)

Antique metal or porcelain signs can be cleaned, but only by the gentlest of methods. Use a very mild or diluted dish washing liquid soap and lukewarm water, rinse with clean water, and dry with another clean cloth, making sure to dry it completely (you don’t need to encourage more rust). To clean vintage posters and paper ads, you should only attempt  surface or “dry” cleaning, which is done with a soft brush or an erasing compound – always testing first in an inconspicuous spot to make certain that no damage to the media will occur. (There are wet cleaning methods for paper, but leave them to a professional to do.) It’s best to store posters flat, in acid-free sleeves, which preserve them from dust, moisture and critters. Storing them rolled up is another option, preferably in an acid-free container.

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Almost as soon as man began making things, he began promoting them. But it was the development of mass manufacturing and the rise of literacy in the latter half of the 1800s that gave birth to advertising as we know it. And while they cross over into other collectibles categories, like housewares and paper goods, promotional items have devotees of their own. Some of the major areas include:

Signage. Porcelain signs (also known as enamel) are one of the largest categories of advertising collectibles. Originating in Germany, these layers of powdered glass rolled onto iron bases soon spread to America, where their bold colors and eye-catching graphics were put to good use advertising gasoline (those extolling extinct brands are especially hot), cigars, motor oil, railroads, and soft drinks, especially Coca-Cola. From the 1880s until the 1950s, they were one of the most dominant forms of outdoor advertising. Developed about the same time were tin signs, which were often produced as a cheap (and less durable) alternative to porcelain. But they were still pricey to produce, so producers of the advertised goods often rented them to stores or places (self-documented signs that have a "property of" label printed on the back are especially sought-after). Tin signs with imagery, particularly of items no longer in production, are generally more valuable that those with only words. Other prized types include those designed with a border that resembles a frame. With the onset of World War II, many of these signs were destroyed for their base metal. Their resulting rarity makes them attractive to collectors.

Neon signs date as far back as 1912 (the first was for a barber in Paris). The most collectible date from the glory decades of neon – the 1920s through the ’60s. Many of the best were custom-made or produced in small quantities in the 1940s and ‘50s for restaurants, shops, clubs, bars, hotels, burger joints, ice cream parlors, auto dealerships and gas stations.

Posters. In 1867, the artist Jules Cheret, inspired by Japanese woodcuts, used the newly-developed four-color lithograph system to combine text and images into a new, easily produced, temporary form of advertising – the poster. By the end of the century, fellow artists like Alphonse Mucha, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen were creating posters combining Art Nouveau aesthetics with easily understandable concepts. Most vintage posters are trying to sell us something – a travel destination, a means of getting there (a railroad, an airline, a cruise line), food, cigarettes; many of the most-sought-after posters are actually ads for wine and spirits. In the latter half of the 20th century, posters for sporting events like the Olympics have been created by Walter Herz, David Hockney, LeRoy Neiman, Jacob Lawrence, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Tracey Emin, and Howard Hodgkin, to name but a few. And then there are movie posters, which were typically sent folded to theaters to be hung in lobbies so movie-goers could get a glimpse of coming attractions. These limited-edition screen-printed advertisements for hundreds of classic or cult movies, as well as a handful of first-run television shows, have become extremely popular among a new cadre of younger poster collectors.

Promotional Items. Along with ads that were meant to be seen were ads that were meant to be used. Common types of “utilitarian” ads, aka promotional items, included thermometers, calendars, coolers, mirrors, and clocks, all of which bore a company’s brand name, logo and/or image in some way or another. Often they might be integral to the use of the advertised product—like an ashtray with a cigarette company’s name on it, or a beer tray bearing the logo for Miller or Pabst. Other advertising collectibles include produce crate labels, salesman samples, tobacco tins, beer trays, door push and pull signs, and celluloid pinbacks, buttons that were meant to be worn and displayed.

Items that were never or barely used, of course, command the most attention (and dollars) from collectors. But bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better when it comes to signage. Some of the bigger porcelain signs can actually be cheaper than the smaller signs, because they’re harder to display.


Once we've identified the age, style, manufacturer/model, and condition of the advertisement, our Savvy Specialists complete a Quick Appraisal which includes research, stories and special features about it. We can also tell you more about the specific piece, including a valuation analysis that includes what similar articles have sold for.


StuffSavvy can match you with Online Partners to get you the most value for the vintage advertisements you'd like to sell. This is a good option once you know the value you want to sell the item for.


StuffSavvy can also match you with Local Consignment Shops and Auction Houses. This is the best option if you want to work with additional Specialists to maximize the resale value of your vintage advertisements.