Art Noveau postcards collectible but pricey

 
 
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Pricey Art Nouveau postcards a collector's delight
 
By Mike Smith
A few years back, I submitted an article to the Wayback Times that showcased several artist-signed postcards under the subtitle A Poor Man’s Art Gallery.
 
In the article, I touted five important Canadian artists whose work was popular enough at the turn of the 20th century to wind up on postcards: John Innes (1863-1941); F.M (Frederick Marlett) Bell-Smith (1846-1923); George Horne Russell (1861-1933); C.W. (Charles William) Jefferys (1869-1951); Newton McConnell (1877-1940).
 
Antique postcards showing artwork from these talented guys are not scarce, but they can be pricey because they are not all that common and the demand for them is high.
 
For example, one would be hard pressed to pick up one of the John Innes postcards from his North West Mounted Police (NWMP) series for less than $50.
 
Likewise, with the series of cards made from Newton McConnell’s anti-reciprocity (free trade) cartoons. These hard-hitting cartoons, printed on the editorial page of the Toronto Globe, were said to have been instrumental in the defeat of Wilfrid Laurier’s pro-reciprocity Liberals in the 1908 federal election.
 
Again, $50 or more is the price one would expect to pay for McConnell cards in very good condition or better. Note that the Innes and McConnell postcards were produced by Toronto publishers W.G. MacFarlane and Brigdens Ltd., respectively.
 
I've mentioned the $50 amount a couple of times already because from my perspective, that’s a lot of dough to spend on a postcard. Many cards priced at that level and higher tend to get passed over by the average collector and end up in the realm of the specialist.
 
I am a bit of an exception in that even though I'm a specialist collector of Canadian patriotic postcards, I can honestly say I have very few cards for which I have paid more than $20.
 
Since I've never seen a patriotic postcard that I didn't like (and there are thousands of them), I watch my price per card carefully so I can bring home as many as possible from shows.
 
For those fortunate collectors with deeper pockets and a love of artist-signed postcards, Art Nouveau cards would be right up your alley.
 
In the realm of fine arts, the Art Nouveau or “new art” period began in the latter decades of the 19th century and reached its height at the turn of the 20th century. During that period, artists in Europe, North America and Japan began incorporating ornate flowing lines with swirling “whiplash” patterns and plant-like figures into sculpture, paintings, jewellery, architecture, etc.
 
One of the legendary masters of the Art Nouveau style on this side of the Atlantic was Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) of Tiffany Studios, New York. Most of us have seen or heard of his famous lamps, with their stained glass shades and his beautiful hand-blown, multi-coloured vases and bowls.
 
These items, like most other Art Nouveau objects, command a premium today and Art Nouveau postcards are no exception. In fact, for serious postcard collectors they can be considered the crème de la crème.
 
With the postcard collecting craze in full swing at the turn of the 20th century, it was inevitable that publishers and printers would want to use Art Nouveau designs to help sell postcards. Brief biographies of some of the more popular Art Nouveau postcard artists are included below.
 
I have also indicated corresponding postcard values (in pounds) as listed in the 2007 edition of the Picture Postcard Values catalogue, published by IPM Promotions in Britain. Due to the age of my catalogue and the current state of the economy, please consider the values I have transcribed as guidelines, not gospel.
 
Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939)
Alphonse Mucha was a Czech who is sometimes referred to as the most defining artist of the Art Nouveau style. He was a skilled painter, commercial artist, illustrator, graphic designer (calendars, posters, menus, programmes, paper money and stamps), furniture designer and sculptor (phew). His most distinguished model and fan, the legendary French stage actress and future silent screen star, Sarah Bernhardt, propelled him into the Paris limelight in the 1890s. From 1893 to 1903, his poster art and murals wowed Parisians and he gained even more fame painting portraits and decorating theatres during his 1904-1912 sojourn in the United States. His artwork hangs in many museums worldwide, and most of his postcards catalogue at £100+.
 
 
Raphael Kirchner (1875-1917)
Another leading figure in the Art Nouveau movement was Austrian-born Raphael Kirchner. He was responsible for over 800 postcard designs and is a favourite among collectors today. Many of Kirchner’s earlier postcards are unsigned so it pays to keep one’s eye open at postcard shows. Sadly for the art world, Kirchner died in the United States at the height of his fame at the relatively young age of 42. His Art Nouveau postcards are listed at £75 at the low end and climb up to £500 (gulp) at the high end. Interestingly, Kirchner always used his beautiful wife, Nina, as his model. This arrangement would have undoubtedly produced much less stress on Kirchner’s marriage than using say, Sarah Bernhardt.
 
 
Berthold Loffler (1874-1960)
This Austrian artist studied at the famed Vienna School of Arts and Crafts and from 1900 onwards made his living as a freelance painter. In 1906, he co-founded the Wiener Keramik art studio that helped make Viennese ceramic works world famous. From 1909 to 1935, he taught as a professor at the Vienna Arts and Crafts Academy. Many of his wonderful Art Nouveau postcard designs were used to advertise expositions and all of his cards are highly collected to this day. Loffler postcards are catalogued at £100 and up.
 
Jack Abeille (1873-1949)
Jack Abeille was born in Varenne-St. Hilarie, France, in 1873 and by his early 20s had established a reputation as a skilled cartoonist, illustrator and commercial artist. During his career, he worked for several French humour magazines, illustrated books and designed a famous series of WWI postcards. He created several series of thematic Art Nouveau postcard designs including Les Saisons (The Seasons), Les Baigneuses (The Swimmers), and a series on flowers for the 1900 Exposition Universelle (Paris). Because of the beautiful women shown on his cards they are often listed in the “glamour” category in catalogues. Abeille postcards are listed at £50 and up.
 
Arpad Basch (1873-1944)
Born in Pest, Hungary in 1873, Arpad Basch was one of the acknowledged masters of Hungarian graphic art.
 
He was a prized illustrator of Hungarian books, almanacs and magazines, as well as artistic director the Magyar Genius (magazine).
 
Famous for paintings and posters alike, his Art Nouveau postcard designs are true little masterpieces. Basch postcards are catalogued at £100 and up.
 
Finally, if you thought that £500 for a Kirchner card was expensive, hold on to your hats. In 1923, there was a now legendary series of 20 postcards made to advertise the Bauhaus Ausstellung (Bauhaus Design Exhibition) in Weimar, Germany. Among other things, the exhibition was an attempt to help redefine German art and architecture in the desperate years after the First World War. Anyway, 14 different artists contributed to the series and it is thought only 25 copies of each postcard were made. This no doubt helps to explain why individual cards sold for $1,500 to $5,000 at a European auction less than a decade ago. And I thought $50 was a lot of dough.
 
Michael J. (Mike) Smith is an RMC graduate (Class of '77) and ex-naval officer who has been an avid collector of Canadiana for most of his life. His current passion is collecting and writing about Canadian antique postcards. He is currently working on his eighth postcard handbook. Visit postcard-directory.com/mikesmithbooks
 
 
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