Update: The vintage 1949 Billie Holiday poster sold for $13,750.
What you see: A vintage 1949 concert poster for jazz singer Billie Holiday. Heritage Auctions doesn’t explicitly give estimates on vintage concert posters, but officials confirmed it at $10,000, or double its opening bid.
Who was Billie Holiday? Born Eleanora Fagan, Billie Holiday is arguably the best female jazz singer who ever stepped before a microphone. Born to a teenage single mother in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Holiday had a hair-raising childhood. By the time she was discovered in a Harlem nightclub at age 18, she had done a stint in reform school, dropped out of school entirely, fought off a rapist, took work as a prostitute, and served time in a workhouse. She sang with the bands of Count Basie and Artie Shaw. She gravitated toward men who beat her and exploited her, and in her later years, she struggled with drug addiction. She died in 1959 at the age of 44, succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver.
How rare was it to show a black woman performer’s photo on a concert poster in 1949? “It was fairly common to see photos on concert posters by 1949, but it was less common for a female artist, and virtually unknown for Billie Holiday,” says Giles Moon, consignment director of entertainment and music memorabilia at Heritage Auctions, adding that the poster shown above is one of two copies that are known.
Where was Billie Holiday in her career by 1949? “She was a big enough star at that point to be a huge draw,” he says. “She didn’t have to have a huge band. She was a star in her own right. She was continuing to have legal problems and continuing to have drug problems, which didn’t help, but she was very successful by this point and would continue [to be] through the 1950s.”
By 1949, she had lost her cabaret license–Harry Anslinger, then the head of the predecessor of the Drug Enforcement Agency, made Holiday a prime target. Might that be why she played the Sacramento Auditorium? She would not have needed a cabaret license for that venue? Moon agrees and points out that the name of the city is spelled incorrectly on the poster. “It’s a common trait with a lot of posters from this period,” he says. “Maybe they didn’t have time to reprint it.”
Last year, Heritage sold the first known example of this poster, which happens to advertise the same show at the same place, for $35,000. Did the owner of this poster come forward as a direct result of that spectacular sale? “Yes, it did come because [of the 2016 auction], and that is often the case,” he says, explaining that it was consigned by the descendants of someone who distributed the poster to record stores and other public places ahead of the 1949 show. “It got a lot of attention when it sold for $35,000. We believe this is only the second.”
What tends to happen at auction when a second copy of a multiple that has only appeared once before goes to the block? “It could go one of two ways. It might not sell for as much because the person who was in the first auction won’t bid for a second copy, because he’s already got one. But it could go the other way,” Moon says. “Those who weren’t in on the bidding at the time, or who were shy [could jump in] and it could reach that level again. Though original concert posters have been around for a while, only in the past two or three years have people started to understand their rarity. Paying $35,000 for a poster–ten or 15 years ago, that would have been unheard of. Many of the lots in this sale are the only known copies, or are extremely rare. People are beginning to realize that if you miss out, the chances are it won’t appear again.”
Are Billie Holiday posters rare, whether they show her face or not? Yes. More than once, posters for concerts that featured her didn’t even mention her name, odd as that might seem. Elsewhere in the same lineup, Heritage is offering an original concert poster for the first Newport Jazz Festival, which took place in 1954. It’s the only known copy of the poster. Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald both appeared at the Rhode Island show, but neither woman is named, and nor are any other artists who performed. “It’s very, very hard to find anything related to Billie Holiday,” Moon says, noting that the situation extends to memorabilia, too. “If it has her signature on it, it can get $2,000 to $4,000. Few if any jazz artists can rival that. Maybe Charlie Parker.”
What else makes this Billie Holiday poster special? “I’ve seen many original concert posters. I’ve been doing this for nearly 30 years now. This one and the one last year are the first [examples] that I have seen. It’s a really rare and really striking poster,” he says. “It’s interesting. She’s one of the most enduring jazz artists of the period. The market for jazz is still strong for the top artists. But it’s not generally the strongest market. It doesn’t compare to rock ‘n roll or R & B. But because she has such star power, such star quality, this is the most desirable poster in the sale.”
How to bid: The Billie Holiday poster is lot #89114 in the Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction at Heritage Auctions on November 11.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.