Introducing Our Dealers: Julia Santen

by Hilary Masell Oswald

How did you become a dealer of antique and vintage posters?

In college, I majored in French and did three semesters abroad. I realized pretty quickly that I wanted to have a job that allowed me to travel. After I graduated, I applied to luxury walking-tour companies like Butterfield & Robinson, and they basically said, “Thank you for your interest. We’ll keep your resume on file.” So I went off to Europe, hoping to keep up my language skills, and landed in Nice, where I decided to do a little travel writing. While I was there, I discovered this gallery that was selling vintage and antique posters. When I eventually decided to move home to the States, I expressed an interest to the gallery owner in selling their posters back home. The answer was pretty much, “I can send you inventory. Here’s the price list.” I had always wanted to live in Charleston, and if I could find a way to make a living here, I would give it a go—and opening my gallery gave me that opportunity.

 So there you were, with a gallery and some inventory from France. How did you go from being a shop owner to an expert?

 The MOMA has a great collection, so I spent time there. I know the poster specialist on Antiques Roadshow and I bounced ideas off him, asked a lot of questions. And I read and referenced a lot of really good books.

 In the beginning, I did antiques shows across the East Coast, from Palm Beach to Nantucket. I figured out the good ones from the bad ones, and I figured out how to sell and what I was selling. At a good show, I’d be so encouraged by the ways this particular form of art resonates with people that it gave me even more motivation to keep figuring it all out


 Where and how do you buy?

I supply my inventory through travel. Unless I know the source well, I don’t buy online. With auction houses, the condition is always in their favor, so I always go and preview an auction. And I’m always trying to look in new places. Shows like Pawn Stars and Antiques Roadshow have made people more interested in antiques, which is great, but they’ve also made people more inclined to look in their attics or their grandmas’ basements. It’s harder to sneak up on anything.

 That said, where have you found your best stash of vintage posters?

At a yard sale. I bought a framed poster and when I removed the frame, I found three other posters that were even better than the one I was able to see.


Has there ever been a poster that you just couldn’t give up?

Almost. I had a beautifully framed image of a redhead, an ad for sparkling water, and it looked fantastic in the apartment. But when I first started my shop, I needed something that just went “Pow!” So I had to put her in the window. I live above my gallery, so I feel like I live with my posters, at least for a short while. Right now, I’ve got a great Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster that I love, but she will find a good home.

 You specialize in posters from the 1890s through about 1960. Why that stretch of time?

You start with the Belle Epoque—the 1890s to 1910. This is the era of Toulouse-Lautrec who was just hugely talented and influential, of course. Then we move into the Art Deco era—from the 1920s through the end of World War II. That’s one of my favorite eras: It can be so minimal, stark but to the point. Then you have the Pan Am posters of the 60s, which resonate with so many people. I will buy Polish posters from the 70s. The Polish were given more artistic license when it came to film and theater posters: You’ll find a whole new take on Tootsie, for example. You think of Dustin Hoffman in sequins, but the Polish poster has this mysterious shadow of a guy putting on bright red lipstick. It’s mesmerizing.

Give us a primer on posters. What does “original” mean—certainly not that it’s the first poster of its kind?

No. All of our posters are from the original or first printing, which means that if a poster has a specific date in the margin, then that’s the year the poster was actually printed. Because these are lithographs, there is no one “original” piece. The art was drawn right onto the lithography stones and printed in runs numbering from a few hundred to as many as 3,000. The stones deteriorated during the printing process and couldn’t be reused.

Tell us a little more about the printing process.

Sure: The primary technique was stone lithography, a procedure refined and simplified in the last 1800s by a Parisian printer and artist named Jules Cheret. The process was done by hand and is really an art form in itself. Because the images were drawn on large lithographic stones, it became feasible to print enormous posters in color. 

How are your posters priced?

Vintage posters are priced very much like collectible coins and stamps. They appreciate much the same way, too. There are limited remaining quantities of any specific image. Prices are based on the poster’s rarity, condition, artist, and subject matter, and they’re directly affected by market prices established at auction.



 Now for a few fun questions: Have any of your travel posters inspired you to take a trip?

Jungfrau-Bahn and Davos are on my short list thanks to some wonderful posters that have introduced me to the areas. Film posters are especially inspiring and push me to see the films. Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, and Brigitte Bardot in Contempt are the latest.  

What do you think we could learn from the golden age of air travel?

How to be better dressed!

Before we let you go, give us some advice: First, what should buyers know about framing?

Use Conservation PlexiGlas instead of glass, and find a qualified framer who has worked with vintage posters before.

And can you tell us your best trade secret?

Everyone says it, but buy what you love. People ask me, “What should I buy? What’s the biggest increase in value?” There’s no good answer. The value of vintage and antique posters has gone up 600% in the last 15 years, so they’re a good investment, but I try to sway people to buy the posters that speak to them. And don’t buy something to match the couch. Your art doesn’t have to—shouldn’t—color-coordinate with your home. It’s about finding an image that speaks to you because you vacationed on the Amalfi Coast or you had a Peugeot bike as a kid. It tells you a story.


Photography by Brittany Callahan and Morgan Livingston.

Hilary Masell Oswald

Hilary Masell Oswald

Contributing Editor

Hilary is a writer and editor, communications consultant and art lover based in Denver, CO. She is the former editor in chief of Colorado Homes & Lifestyles, one of the West’s premier design magazines, where she oversaw a complete and popular redesign of the magazine. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Mountain Living, 5280 (Denver’s City Magazine), and other national and regional publications. A native of Naples, Florida, Hilary earned a BA from Davidson College, where her studies led her to France and in-depth coursework in art and architecture (and self-study in wine and cheese). She also holds a MS in journalism from Northwestern University.