Cinema history for sale: Movie poster collector seeks buyer for archive
There's nothing so unique about a real estate developer taking a look at a 1930s era house, which is precisely what Dwight M. Cleveland, president of a Chicago-based renovation and development company, did one day in 1991. But his interest in the house didn't center on either the historic merits of the structure itself or the value of the land on which it stood. Rather, Cleveland was interested in the rare treasure buried inside its walls: scores of movie posters.
A long-time collector of movie posters, Cleveland visited the Three Oaks, Mich., home when he learned that its Depression-era owner, who also had had a movie theater, used film posters as insulation for additions he made to the house. “It was a wonderful discovery process, pulling Sheetrock off the walls and finding these posters,” Cleveland, 52, said.
It was there he found a poster for the 1935 Busby Berkeley film “Gold Diggers,” considered to be a holy grail among movie poster collectors — Cleveland had been seeking the poster for nearly 13 years at that point. It is now part of Cleveland’s archive of 11,000 movie posters, which he’s been collecting since he graduated from high school.
The archive includes posters from 55 countries. All 83 Oscar best picture winners are represented, as well as every title on AFI’s Top 100 list. Cleveland has “The Godfather” posters from more than 20 countries. For films like “Chinatown” and “Star Wars: A New Hope,” he has more than 45 different versions.
Now, though, Cleveland has decided it’s time to part with the collection — he is nearing the end of a two-year search for a buyer. “The fun part was seeking out these posters, but now I’ve found pretty much everything I’ve wanted to find,” he said.
Cleveland is eager for someone — or some entity — with more resources to continue building the value of the archive. The ideal new owner, he said, would be a university, a film studio or a museum — a place where the posters would be available for public viewing.
Cleveland is giving himself 30 to 45 more days to find a buyer. If someone doesn’t purchase the posters by then, he will part with them via different auction houses, dividing up the collection he’s amassed over 35 years. “I haven’t come close to [an offer at] a realistic price,” Cleveland said of the collection valued at $3.5 million.
Since starting the search for an heir to the collection in November 2009, Cleveland said he has exhausted his ideas for potential buyers. He's reached out to any number of potential acquisitors, including roughly 2,000 agents, entertainment lawyers and film school deans.
Launching the search with a passionate belief that film posters are a valuable part of American and art history, Cleveland has been faced with a frustrating disinterest in the collection. “People in the film business are so focused on their next project that there’s no predilection for history,” he said.
As for the art world, Cleveland noted there’s a tendency to dismiss the posters as commercial designs that are made for the sole end-game of selling tickets. But he, like many collectors, views the posters as artistic artifacts from another era — he found his love of film after he started the collection with his first piece, a lobby card for a 1929 film, “The Wolf Song.”
That poster belonged to Cleveland’s high school art teacher. Fellow students at the North Andover, Mass., school made fun of the eccentric instructor's obsession with movie posters, but his return from an acquisition trip that brought home that striking “Wolf Song” poster changed Cleveland’s mind during his senior year.
“It was the Art Deco design and the color saturation that just struck me — I had to own it,” he said.
A gap year in Los Angeles before college got Cleveland started in the tricky business of trading posters as he searched for a bartering piece that would satisfy the art teacher. Soon he was witnessing changes in the hobby, as selling replaced the norm of trading and eBay became competition for the traditional auction houses. All the while, Cleveland crisscrossed the globe in his search for movie poster gold.
He hopes the collection will find a home in the United States, as he considers the movie poster to be one of the few art forms indigenous to the country, but he has sought foreign buyers as well.
Cleveland has dreams of the collection being housed in a museum that would exhibit the posters in themed shows. With the archive’s expanse, the possibilities range across all genres and several actors, directors and franchises. Cleveland’s collection could easily fill out an exhibit with just posters from “James Bond” films or Clint Eastwood movies or 1950s sci-fi, he says.
“I believe there’s a buyer,” he said. “Someone out there with a sense of history … someone who loves posters like I do.”
— Emily Rome
Photo: Dwight M. Cleveland in his Chicago office. Credit: Dwight M. Cleveland.