Sign of the Times

Helen Walters reports on a unique sale of advertising artefacts

Every year, millions of people stand, mouths agape and necks craned upwards, marvelling at New York’s Times Square. Though no longer as edgy as it once was, the area still contains the  gaudy, large scale advertising that has made it the centre of rampant consumerism for over a century.

Most spectacular of all, but now mostly long gone, were the gigantic neon lights which became inextricably linked with the area. A recent sale held by Philadelphia auction house, Freemans, put 100 pieces of such classic Times Square history on the block. Featuring drawings, models and posters alongside original neon pieces from the archive of signage specialist, Artkraft Strauss, this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to lay your hands on a piece of the cultural history of the twentieth century. Much to Artkraft Strauss owner Tama Starr’s delight, the sale was a huge success, raising over $100,000 and underlining the public’s real interest in this commercial, industrial art form.

“The idea was really to move along these heavy, delicate items to collectors so we could focus more on our archive,” she explains. “But Freemans was holding a mid-century auction just after ours, and so all of our pieces were interspersed among items like Noguchi tables and Eames chairs. You got a real appreciation of how they would look in residential homes, which I must say I hadn’t really thought about.”

Certainly, when removed from their commercial context, many of the pieces take on a whole new abstract, graphic appeal. “I think the historical and cultural significance of the pieces played a huge role,” says Brent Lewis, the specialist in charge of the auction. “But by and large people were interested in the simple design of specific pieces.”

Unfortunately, neon signage is a dying art. These days, most images in Times Square are computer generated and displayed on screens rather than via bulbs or tubes. But the irrepressible Starr is not nostalgic for the old days. “It’s always good to see the end of one thing and look for the beginning of something else,” she says. “It was great fun, it was absolutely wonderful, in fact. But I would guess that the next thing will be wonderful, too.”

Family firm Artkraft Strauss created nearly all of Times Square’s spectacular signs throughout the twentieth century. For more information about the sale, go to For more on Artkraft Strauss, visit


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