This Halloween, decorations have a vintage, ghoulish edge

Leering pumpkins with smiles askew. Warty witches you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. Spiky-backed black cats on the prowl for a throat to tear out. This year, Halloween is sporting a vintage style that’s a far cry from the smiling moons, benevolent bats and friendly ghosts for whom Halloween is a benignly spooky holiday.

Back in the earliest days of the last century, Halloween was a festival meant for adults, and that meant adult parties.

The artwork and images produced for this mature audience largely came out of Germany and the U.S. and were often exquisitely crafted with edgy images that were boldly dark and deliberately unsettling.

These early images have proved irresistible. Just look around. This Halloween, they’re fueling a growing collectibles market for true vintage Halloween pieces and a surging interest in reproduction vintage Halloween decor.

Sussing out authentic vintage materials is something of a treasure hunt, but there are plenty of modestly priced reproduction pieces that capture the nostalgia of earlier Halloween celebrations.

When Mark B. Ledenbach started his now-5,000-piece collection of vintage Halloween ephemera, “I had no clue this stuff would skyrocket in value,” he says. Ledenbach specializes in mass-produced, paper-based products, whose rarity is largely due to their disposability.

Ledenbach, who has written three editions of the must-have collectors’ guide “Vintage Halloween Collectibles,” is considered an expert in the field, which, he estimates, include “tens of thousands of collectors” who buy three to five vintage pieces a year, but only “a couple hundred super collectors willing to shell out major dollars.” Prices can be upward of $3,000 for a 1935 German flat die-cut of a banjo-playing cat with waggling tongue sitting on top of a pumpkin or a 1932 Beistle die-cut skeleton scratching his head while walking in a graveyard.

However, Ledenbach notes, “You do not have to be a millionaire to collect vintage Halloween.”

Postcards that date from around 1907 or 1908 can be had for $10 or $20. The low-end for more common American die-cuts is about $15, although rarer versions can go upward of $500.

Original vintage Halloween continues to inspire reproduction efforts as well as new pieces by artisans at more affordable prices.

“Customers under 30 do crave that vintage feel,” says Debi Thomas, owner of Traditions holiday decor store in Canoga Park, which stocks an array of vintage-inspired Halloween products at a variety of price points.

With sales up 35% to 40% in the last two years, the reproduction pieces are an entry point.

“Some can’t afford $300 for [an original] but can spend $39, $49, $59 for a reproduction,” she says. “And it looks just as good.”

Williams-Sonoma, which offers new Halloween tabletop decor every year, worked with early 20th century vintage postcards, and sweeter images, for one of its dinnerware lines this year.

“There definitely was a trend in the collecting world to that time period,” explains Wayne Maness, vice president of product development. “We felt there was an opportunity to build our own collectible collection they could add to vintage pieces they already have. It’s been a very strong collection right out of the gate.”

Locally, interest is just as strong. The crowds who eagerly await the early-September opening of Roger’s Gardens’ annual Halloween installation in Newport Beach “are primarily looking to collect,” says Hedda Staines, who spends the year buying product, much of which is by artisans such as Bethany Lowe and Nancy Malay who take their cue from vintage images.

“A true enthusiast,” Staines says, “is looking for things a bit macabre, a bit perverse, a little more scary.”

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