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An attic find

Troy couple uncovers valuable movie, circus posters

When Justin and Katie Hall moved into their new home in Troy in November, they had no idea that previous owners had left them more than an empty house. They’d left a hidden treasure as well.

That treasure — a box of old posters discovered in the attic of their garage — has turned out to be a real bonanaza for the young couple.

The stash of rare movie and circus posters is being auctioned this weekend by Heritage Auctions in Dallas, the largest auction house founded in the United States. The posters were printed between 1895 and 1918.

“At first we had no idea they were real,” Katie said. “But we thought they were cool and beautiful and we figured we’d frame them and hang them in our new house.”

The posters, in fact, turned out to be real. And despite the lack of air conditioning or heating in the attic, they were well-preserved.

According to the auction house, many of the posters were produced by Cincinnati’s Strobridge Litho Co. and feature a variety of silent films. The collection includes two rare one sheets for “His Birthright” and “The Temple of Dusk,” both starring Sessue Hayakawa, the first Japanese American actor to find stardom in the United States and Europe. Those prints have an estimated value of $1,000 each.

Also in the trove are four 1890s Barnum and Bailey circus posters, including a rare German language poster, and a crisp promotional poster of boxer James J. Corbett, aka “Gentleman Jim.” Tucked into the stack was a Warren G. Harding Political Posterfrom 1920 and a poster from Hoyt’s “A Midnight Bell,” from 1896.

Additional posters in the Troy cache include a full-bleed one sheet from 1918 featuring silent star Bessie Love, and a one sheet for “The Matrimonial Martyr” from 1916.

Uncovering treasure

Justin Hall, who is in the process of renovating his 1960s house, at first spotted some old chairs in his attic garage and beamed a flashlight into the space. It was then he saw a flat box in the corner.

“He opened up the box and saw they were old posters and figured my dad might like to see them,” Katie said. Her father, Gary Bowser, lives in Indiana and has been going to auction and garage sales in recent years and buying and selling things on e-Bay.

When Katie told him about the box of posters, he recommended the couple “take care of them in case they are real.”

So the box was transferred from the attic to the top of the dog’s kennel, where it sat for a couple of months.

“It was the only flat surface to lay it on because we’re still in the process of moving, ripping up carpet and painting,” she explained. “Looking back we realize the dogs could have hurt them!”

Initially Katie took photos of the posters for her dad; later she took the box for him to examine as well.

“I have a couple of World War II posters and kinda dauble at auctions, ” Bowser explained. He knew the circus posters — if they were originals — were at least 100 years old because they advertised the Barnum & Bailey Circus and by 1919, that circus had merged with Ringling Brothers.

Bowser’s web research, coupled with the markings on the posters and their “great color” let him to believe the posters were authentic. He decided he had nothing to lose by aiming high and sent pictures of the posters to Heritage just to see what the experts there would have to say about them.

Making a match

Grey Smith, director of Movie Posters at Heritage, has been collecting posters for more than 40 years and was immediately enthusiastic about the Hall family’s find.

“All of the posters from that time period are very rare and beautiful,” he said. “They are just stunning because they used a process called stone lithograph. They are more colorful, more vivid than later posters; they are more like works of art.”

Smith said his auction house has a group of bidders and buyers that collect both movie and circus posters.

He said this stash harkens to other notable discoveries of rare movie posters such as The Berwick Discovery of Lost Movie Posters, a trove of posters discovered in an attic in Berwick, Pa., in early 2012. Heritage auctioned that collection for a combined $503,000 in March 2012.

Smith, who began collecting movie posters when he was 10 years old, said it’s both the beauty and historical value of movies that touches people.

“I’ve always claimed that owning a poster from a film like “It Happened One Night” is like owning a little piece of the original release and distribution of that film,” he explains. “You can frame it, it has both emotional and intrinsic value and the liklihood of it appreciating is pretty good, especially when you realize it was from 1934.”

He says people relate to circus as well.

“These circus posters are gorgeous and people look back of their experiences as kids — going to the circus and what a thrill it was.”

Whatever the proceeds are, Katie Hall says they’ll save some of the money, use some to continue fixing up their home, and donate some to a good cause.

“After all, she says, ” it’s free money.”

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