A Primer for Collecting Advertising Signs
By John Mancino
Ask just about any antique dealer what is the hottest thing selling today and most would say advertising, especially signs. In the past few years, advertising and signs have risen to the top of the collectors lists. What makes them so desirable? A few things come to mind, including color, slogans, brand recognition, and road side memories. We all remember seeing iconic signage when we were driving down the road in the back of our parent’s station wagon. Gas stations, hotels, motels, diners, and restaurants all had great advertising back in the day. We were exposed to it on a daily basis. As we get older we long for those days. Collecting signs brings us there.
Television shows that feature collectibles is another reason collecting advertising is so hot right now. And then you have “Baby Boomers,” such as me, who collect cars and like to have the advertising on the walls where they display their vehicles. The economy has also played a factor. When the market is soft, investors tend to put their money into tangible property, whether it is art, cars or advertising signs. All of these factors have contributed to the growing awareness and popularity of the hobby.
If you are new to collecting advertising there are a few things I would suggest:
First, buy what you like! Don’t try to buy as an investment. Although signs have increased in value over the years, trying to invest in them may get you burnt. If you buy what you like you will always be happy with what you purchase.
Second, always try to buy the best condition possible. A grade nine or ten sign will always hold its value where a lessor grade sign will not.
Another point I would like to talk about is rarity versus condition. Some signs that are rare, only one or two known, could have condition issues but still be worth more than a mint condition common sign. There are millions of signs out there and a lot of very nice condition ones. You will only learn this as you become a seasoned collector.
Third, try to educate yourself; do your research before buying. Ask people, look on the Internet, buy value guides, and deal with reputable dealers. Subscribe to monthly publications which feature the advertising genre you like. A little investment in research can save a ton of money wasted on a fake. There are a lot of fakes turning up in this hobby. As with anything else of value, as soon as prices go up, in move the thieves. Reproductions and fantasy signs are running rampant in this hobby.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to walk away from a deal. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. There are a lot more signs out there.
Where do you find signs? There are a ton of places to look for antique advertising. Antique shows, special interest shows such as car shows (Hershey and Carlisle have great flea markets with a lot of different advertising) and specific sign and Petroliana shows are just a few suggestions. There are several auction houses that specialize in advertising, too. There are also just advertising shows just specializing in advertising of all kinds.
Personally, I like to get out and buy face-to-face. At a show or sale, you can handle the item, make a deal and move on. You can see and feel the condition of the item. The Internet takes that out of the equation. Don’t get me wrong, the Internet is still a good place to find things but it’s not as personal as the face-to-face transaction.
If you are new to the hobby and want to get started collecting, get out and look around. Scour the Internet looking for shows, events and auctions, and get out and meet other people with the same interests. You will be surprised how friendly other collectors are; we all enjoy the same things! Go to shows, meet the dealers and ask plenty of questions. I for one love talking about my hobby and enjoy helping out fellow collectors. You need to educate yourself, and one of the best ways to do that is to network with other collectors. For buying, I would recommend dealing with reputable dealers. Just ask others who they prefer to do business with. There are a lot of good, friendly, honest dealers out there so it’s worth the time to do your homework to find them. Don’t ever feel pressured into buying; there will always be another one sooner or later. My dad used to say, “Act in haste, repent at leisure” It’s true – when you let emotion and pressure dictate your purchase it almost never ends well.
Collecting can be a family outing. I have three children and they grew up going to auctions, car shows, flea markets, and yard sales. We did it as a family and we had fun doing it together. Although my children are grown, they will still show up at car shows to hang out a look for treasures with me.
You can get started on a budget. There are all sorts of advertising, and prices can range from a few dollars to hundreds of thousands. You don’t have to go all in at first; you can start out small and as you learn, expand your horizons.
Another aspect of collecting is how to display your collection. I have seen hundreds of collections in my years at this. They are all as different as fingerprints. Some people, me included, build whole gas stations or country stores to display their collection. Others just tack stuff to their garage walls. Some collectors are brand specific, meaning they only collect items from a certain company or brand. Others just like to collect tins, or prints, maps, or postcards. Myself, I collect Petroliana and Automobilia. I have a two- story garage packed with signs, displays and cars. I rotate some of my collection periodically as my taste changes and space allows.
I started collecting about 25 years ago. I ran an automobile repair shop and towing business in Syracuse, NY. One day I towed a wrecked car into a body shop. The shop had a full scale Mobil gas station in it, and a country store for an office. I was already a car collector and had a few cars. I mentioned to the man who owned the body shop that I would like to find a gas pump to go with my cars. Two days later he called me and told me to stop by as he had something for me – what turned out to be my first gas pump! He and I became fast friends and are to this day. He retired last year and I went to his shop to help him clean it out. As we were working he said to me, “Would you like to own that office?” I replied “the country store?” He said, “Yes, it’s yours if you want it.” Well I did want it but how was I going to move it? Well, we cut it in half, put it on my car trailer and moved it to Bouckville, NY, where it is now on display in its new home in the pavilion at the Out Front Show field. Come visit and be inspired!
John Mancino is a retired automobile repair shop owner and mechanic, and avid petroliana and automobilia enthusiast. He now resides in Bouckville NY and is the owner of the Out Front Showfield. He hosts a Petroliana show the first weekend of June annually. All the info can be found on his web site www.gasstuff.com.
John is also the president of Madison Bouckville Promotions, the group that is responsible for the annual Madison Bouckville Antique Week held the third week of August every year. For more info on that visit www.madison-bouckville.com.