Bicycle Posters – an historic auction sale

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This Tuesday in Paris, there was an auction of a single collection of over 350 posters dating from the late 19th to the mid 20th century, all of which were on the theme of the bicycle, and mostly of French origin. The anonymous seller ‘Monsieur X’ had been collecting these over a period of about 35 years, amassing an extraordinary range of images, largely in very good condition.

Grouped in themes, they included images of cycles being chased by ‘red indians’, oriental themes, night time images and manufacturers racing exploits. They reflected the various art styles of the times, the Art Nouveau posters being particularly attractive.

Many of the posters were large scale, averaging about 100 x 150 cm, since they were designed to be read from a distance and have ‘impact’. Most were lithographs drawn on to and printed from lithographic stones, and it is only in full scale that you can appreciate the beauty, colour and textures of these pieces. Printed on thin paper, since they were not really designed to last, they are commonly preserved by mounting the fragile sheets on linen.

There was a lot of interest in the sale, and internet bidders competed with those in the swanky sale rooms of auction house Artcurial. Top price was €8,450 for the great ‘Nunc est Bibendum’ advertising poster for Michelin, this one dating from 1898, showing the Bibendum character eating nails and other sharp objects. Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1896 image from the Simpson Chain matches at the Catford Velodrome in London sold for €5,980. The artist travelled to London for three days to make images for the company, featuring the famous Simpson Lever Chain. Lautrec was undoubtedly a great artist, but was not so good at drawing bicycles! The company rejected this image for use as a poster, due to inaccuracies in the drawing of the bicycle, hence the lack of text. Lautrec then had the image printed privately in a signed edition of 200 plus some unsigned versions. A fire destroyed most of these works, so they are rare. Despite the inaccuracies it’s a sparse and strangely captivating image.

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Many of the lots sold for modest amounts in the early hundreds of Euro’s, very cheap for what were really quite rare and wonderful images. I missed a number of bargains as I was saving up for an expensive lot towards the end of the sale, on which I was frustratingly outbid! Nevertheless I came away with a few beautiful ones.

Here are some of my other favourites:

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