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Linen Backed Movie Posters – a word of Warning

By on July 17, 2014

I have a large collection of linen backed Movie Posters. Linen Backing has always been the generally accepted way of restoring movie posters but there can be significant risks of deterioration that collectors need to be aware of.

Collecting of Movie Posters is a fairly young hobby. Over the years the major auction houses have often encouraged consignors to have posters linen backed prior to them placed in auctions. Linen backing became very popular amongst collectors. Many would have posters in mint condition backed purely because they looked more impressive on linen.

Linen Backing Movie PostersOne thing that always concerned me was how linen backed posters would survive over time, particularly when there had been considerable restoration using paint, pencil work, etc. There have been many restorers over the years and the craft has been learned and modified through trial and error, but not always with any scientific expertise.

It is generally accepted that linen backing is reversible. This is partially true but the process of removing a poster from linen and re backing it can be very time consuming and fraught with danger when there has been extensive prior restoration. The process can be very costly and not always produce the desired result.

I am now finding that some posters that were backed years ago are developing significant problems. Back in the 90s I had a number of posters in my personal collection backed by a well known restorer. They looked fantastic after being backed and I stored them with the rest of my collection in a controlled dry environment.

Linen Backing Movie PostersOver the years, I noticed that faint spots were developing around the border areas and also on the back of the linen. The spots were not unlike foxing marks that you often see on old books. I have had hundreds of posters linen backed over the years, many of which were backed by different restorers. They are all stored in the same place but the faint spots were only evident on the posters that had been backed by one restorer.

Linen Backing Movie PostersIt is now more than ten years since the posters were backed.  The spots have gradually developed more noticeably on the posters and I am now considering having them all rebacked. A number of the posters are for rarely seen, highly sought after titles that should be very valuable under normal circumstances. The current value of the posters has significantly diminished because no one would want to buy a poster with foxing issues unless they could pick it up very cheaply. If they did purchase the poster they would probably look at having it rebacked.

In a recent major auction, I noticed that many linen backed posters were being sold with the following description “at some point after it was backed, it acquired some faint brown dot stains around the edges, mostly in the excess paper, but slightly in the borders of the poster.” As always, the seller of the posters is making the defects very clear to his customers so the buyer knows that the poster has issues. However, the thing that concerns me is that this auction highlights that there are many more linen backed movie posters out there that have developed these similar issues.

A theory on what causes foxing on linen backed movie posters

I have a theory about why the foxing marks are developing. Years ago, a linen backer sold a video which detailed the process of linen backing. He filmed the basic steps and materials that are used in a fairly simplistic way. For various reasons, the restorer was ridiculed on discussion boards. One of the main criticisms was that he advocated the use of Wallpaper paste to secure the poster to the Masa Paper and then to the linen.

Linen Backing Movie PostersThe criticism came primarily from other dealers who were horrified that wallpaper paste could be used for a conservation process. They thought that the paste should be mixed/manufactured by the restorer using water soluble wheat paste. Well, the fact is that most of the highly respected linen backers have ALWAYS used Wallpaper paste.

When you think about it, it makes sense to use a paste that has been developed over time by an industry that is far larger that the movie poster restoration business. Wallpaper paste is manufactured professionally using certain chemicals that will inhibit mould and foxing but not interfere with the integrity of the poster.

Linen Backing Movie PostersThe wheat paste that some restorers mixed themselves had no scientific basis and actually ATTRACTS issues like foxing. I believe that the paste that they mix has resulted in long term problems despite the best intentions of the linen backers.

I am convinced by my own personal experience and evidence, having stored posters in the same place for a similar length of time. They were backed by different restorers but the only ones to develop the foxing issues had been backed by the restorer who mixed his own paste.

Of course, it is impossible to definitively prove why the posters have deteriorated and I have no intention of naming the linen backer/s concerned. Linen backed movie posters will be subject to mould issues and insect damage if not stored in a cool dry place. I have seen horrific damage to linen backed posters that had been stored in a high humidity climate. When issues arise, the linen backer will usually say that the problems have occurred because of poor storage.

There is usually no guarantee provided when you have posters linen backed. In my case, the linen backer/s is aware of the foxing marks on all of the posters but it has taken so long for them to develop that there is no way they would take any responsibility.

However, I am left with many backed movie posters that have been basically ruined over time. They will cost a small fortune to reback but are worthless in their present form. I am now thinking that I should have left them “as is”.

I will still get movie posters linen backed but I will only use restorers I trust. I have to wonder how many others will find that their linen backed movie posters deteriorate over time.

 

 

About John Reid

5 Comments

  1. Andrew Wheeler

    August 2, 2014 at 9:24 pm

    An interesting post, and really very worrying that fox marks should appear in a fairly short time.
    But I don’t think that switching from using pure wheat starch to an off the shelf wallpaper paste is likely to be the answer. I have just tested the pH of some regular wallpaper paste (L.A.P. in the UK) and it is very alkaline – nearly off the scale at pH9 which I’m sure is too high to be safely used on artwork.
    Most conservators avoid using store bought materials as the manufacturers just don’t tell you what’s in them – the fungicide for instance. In this case it may simply be that the high pH acts as a fungicide.

    Worryingly the alkalinity may also have a long term slow-release bleaching effect that might be the reason that foxing is suppressed. I think this was true of the now discredited Chloramine T bleach, which lingered on in the paper and continued slowly bleaching for years. Little chance of mould, but the paper would be slowly destroyed.
    I think that we non scientists would need to turn to the experts in our national museums and archives for some reliable answers.

  2. Charlie

    September 2, 2014 at 9:39 am

    Andrew, Over at Vintage Movie Poster Forum, we shot off an e-mail to the Northeast Document Conservation Center and got a very nice response. You may want to check it out:

    http://vintagemoviepostersforum.com/discussion/comment/8174/#Comment_8174

  3. John Reid

    September 3, 2014 at 6:33 am

    I will be adding a follow up article soon with more information on some of the potential pitfalls of linen backing.

  4. Martin Child

    May 25, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    I read your article coincidentally having just looked at one of the few linen-backed posters in my collection for the first time in 2/3 years. I bought it already linen-backed in 2009 so I am not sure when the poster was conserved. I have kept it rolled in the cardboard tube in which it was sent since I have had it (I don’t know one way or the other whether this could have had an adverse effect). It now has numerous brown spots both in the linen margins, the artwork and across the back of the poster which can only have develpoed in the past 2/3 years.

    I live in northern England so the climatic conditions here hardly approximate to those in Australia! The main problem affecting storage I guess would be cold/damp although the brown spotting does not look like foxing as such – there is not the appearance of mould growth as in John’s photos. It is a French poster from the 1950s and I know there is a tendency for posters of that nationality/era to darken along the fold lines but the brown spotting seems to be of a different order.

    I wondered if you had received any other feedback from other collectors around the world to get a flavour of how widespread this problem might be? It has certainly given me pause for thought in considering the pros/cons of having any other posters linen backed.

    Martin

    P.S. Great website by the way!

    • John Reid

      May 26, 2015 at 6:13 am

      Hi Martin
      There have been one or two other people who have contacted me with similar issues. It is obviously difficult to be prove exactly what causes the issues but I think most collectors would expect to be able to store a linen backed poster in a tube in a cool dry place without seeing foxing marks developing after a few years. I added a follow up article to this one that deals with the implications of using various paste mixes http://www.ozefilm.com/linen-backing-movie-posters/ I do feel that foxing can develop on linen backed posters where an inferior paste mix has been used. The use of pre mixed wall paper paste, although frowned on by conservationists, is less likely to cause issues in my opinion.
      Regards
      John

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