A stark and terrifying image jumps out at visitors browsing through folders of posters at New York's Chisholm Larsson Gallery. A sinister masked chemist with blacked out eyes creates CS gas in a laboratory in one 1984 communist propaganda print. Yet for many, this image, entitled No to Chemical Weapons, is compelling and desirable — a vivid reminder of the not-so-distant Cold War.

What’s hot, what’s not

Before you buy Soviet propaganda posters, take note.

What's hot: Pre-war original posters in good condition, particularly those by famous artists such as El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko.

What's not: Modern reproductions of Soviet posters have no financial value.

The gallery is asking $600 for this Viktor Koretsky poster but some of the more than 2000 bills from the former Soviet Union can go for as much as $3,500. The high prices are a signal of the surge in demand for these particular communist artifacts.

“There are some hungry, aggressive poster collectors and you're speaking to one of them,” joked Dr Sergo Grigorian, a Russian collector based in London who has over 2000 political Soviet posters.

For those fascinated by Soviet graphic design and communist history, posters are an easy way to start a collection. Their topics touch on the environment, health, film and space exploration, as well as classic propaganda, depicting Lenin, Soviet workers and Stalin's five-year plans.

Relatively inexpensive, compared with Soviet-era paintings, for example, older examples from the 1920s and 1930s can be found in poster shops around the world. Take note: it is easy for both professional collectors and hobbyists to get burned. 

The appeal

Russian and international collectors are enthralled by the history, subject matter and extraordinary graphic imagery of posters produced from 1917 to 1991. Prices have increased considerably since the Soviet Union broke up. Chisholm Larsson's founder, Robert Chisholm, says that posters bought in 1991 are probably worth three-times the amount today. In some cases they could be worth much more.

“When the Soviet Union broke up, many posters were just dumped,” explained Chisholm, who bought around 3000 from a translator making frequent trips to Russia in the 1990s. “Today, we're selling some of those works back to Russian buyers.” He added that space-themed posters are particularly popular with his clients, which include US and UK collectors.

Grigorian started collecting Soviet posters in the mid 1990s, following a period collecting Soviet stamps. “My friends who weren't interested in my stamp collection were suddenly very interested in these,” he said. Grigorian often picks up rare examples outside Russia, because western tourists bought and preserved them.

Most coveted

Many posters produced in the 1980s were scooped up by tourists and most are worth less than $100 said Nicholas Lowry, president of New York's Swann Auction Galleries and director of its vintage posters department. “Posters from the 1980s are beautiful, powerful and evocative, but most of them are really not that valuable,” he said.

Older posters can fetch much higher prices. Pre-Second World War Soviet posters, in particular, are in demand. Though most Soviet posters were produced in print runs of 30,000 to 60,000, they were meant to be posted on walls and then disposed of, so few older examples have survived.

Some Soviet graphic artists are particularly prized, such as Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg, Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and Gustav Klutsis, partly because their vibrant, avant-garde designs have greatly influenced today’s western artists.

Swann Auction Galleries in New York plans to auction several Klutsis posters in April, including two from 1930 that they expect could sell for as much as much as $15,000 each.  A 1923 Rodchenko poster advertising the state airline Dobrolet is estimated to fetch $20,000 to $30,000 at the same sale. Other works by these artists have sold for as much as $50,000.

Hidden treasure

Modern reproductions of Communist posters have no financial value, so buyers must be careful to avoid mistaking later copies for originals. Some smaller prints may have come from a book of classic poster copies, for example. “You can't buy an original Lissitzky for $100, for example, so that's a warning sign,” said Chisholm.

You can pick up many museum-quality original posters for less than $1000, however, such as those by Koretsky. Chicago's Smart Museum of Art held a Koretsky exhibition in 2011 and “whenever major museums pay attention to an artist or genre, that creates more exposure,” Lowry said. There's no way of knowing whether poster prices will continue to increase, but buying sought-after artists now is a good bet, said Lowry.

Unlike other collectibles like furniture, proper restoration can make sought-after posters gain value. “If you restore a poster — by having little flakes filled in, for example — the value can increase,” Lowry said.   

What to look for

Original Soviet posters will include the print run, date and often the artist's name. Before they buy, collectors also should factor in gallery and auction house commissions and other costs. Lowry said cheaper posters can just be kept in a poster tube somewhere dry, but Grigorian insures his posters and stores them in a special art storage unit.

Many collectors mount valuable, fragile posters on acid-free paper attached to canvas to protect them and to allow restoration. Collectors should never display valuable posters without a frame with a UV filter, or they can quickly fade in the sun.

When looking to buy one of your own pieces of history, you can turn to one of the many auction houses, poster galleries and online venues that buy and sell Soviet posters. You can even buy them straight from collectors — Grigorian has a list of posters for sale on his website. If you do buy online, be very careful that you are buying an original poster, not a worthless reproduction, and understand the condition it is in.

The bottom line

Lowry said it is impossible to tell whether Soviet poster prices will continue to rise, but history suggests the best and rarest works by important artists will. No particular genre is the most collectible, said specialists. Instead, the age of the poster and artist are integral to establishing value.

Grigorian's main concern is not his collection's financial value, but ensuring it goes to a museum for future generations to enjoy after he has gone. “When you collect something, it's part of your soul, and I'm part of this period in history myself,” he said. “I just want to share it with others.”