I must have been 16 or 17 when passing Marc Wijnants’ vintage advertising/antiques store in the Kloosterstraat (historical Antwerp) around 1987-1988.  Untill today,  almost 25 years later,  I still remember how hard I stepped on my motorcycle brakes,  surprisely caught,  and astonished by this big SPA MONOPOLE advertising sign in the shop display of this fantastic cornershop, specialized in vintage stuff and enamel/porcelain signs.


The orange PIERROT on top of this exploding bottle of Belgian Mineral Water, saying “L’EAU QUI PETILLE” / “HET SPRINGEND WATER” from late 1930’s,  signed by Jean D’Ylen !    This was probably love at first sight, or had I been bitten by the enamel microbe that day ? So excited when I entered the shop for the item that I-HAD-TO-HAVE … but also wondering what the value of this fantastic item would be. The owner of the shop clearly noticed the passion in my request,  smiled and said very self-secure “50.000 francs” ! (50k Belgian francs would be around € 1.250,00 today) At that time, late 1980’s  Bfr. 50.000 (Belgian francs)  was a huge amount that probably only my dad could spend on a car or so … realising this huge amount at that time was not in reach of this 16 year old,  I had to leave the store,  empty handed,  disappointed but convinced that no matter what one day I would have a big SPA MONOPOLE-sign like this one.

I passed the storemore frequently then nescessary in that period,  just to make a short stop and worship, just to catch a glimp of this artwork by French designer Jean D’Ylen (1886-1938). Untill a few weeks later the item was suddenly gone. Sold ! Ever since that one day I started collecting vintage enamel/porcelain signs … searched on flea markets … fifties/sixties fairs and expo’s … only many years later the internet. In those early days (for me) we even spotted signs on their original location, in the streets, at old pubs, farms, gasoline stations, backyards, etc.   I even remember me taking of the roof of a chicken coop, next to an old deserted farm, that was completely covered with signs. Those were the days, exchanging 20 bad signs for 1 good sign, always looking for better and more unique ones to build up a better – and international collection.


Very soon I realised there was a huge gap between regular, mass produced signs and the exclusive artistic topsigns that were certainly much more expensive and harder to get. The better the designs, the more unique, the better the condition, limited productions, signed by the original designer, etc  made some of these artefacts to often unreachable objects.  The passion kept growing, and between 1990 and 2000 the theme of collecting vintage Enamel/Porcelain signs realy gained a lot of popularity, and a true community with collectors, auctions, dealers, shops, fairs, gallery’s, etc reached a certain high level it hadn’t reached before.  Definitely books on this topic such as EMAIL-REKLAME-SCHILDER 1900-1960 on the  Andreas Maurer Collection, and  ‘EMAILSCHILDER und ALTE REKLAME (Vom schlichten Werbeobjekt zum begehrtem Kunstwerk)’ by Susanne and Alexander M. Zacke are THE reference guides to good quality signs and how to categorise all different kind of signs and subjects. The enamel/porcelain community was very strong in Europe in the 1990’s, especially in France, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Switzerland and I very often traveled a lot to attend for example the ‘Dorotheum Auctions in Vienna’, the ‘Micky Waue Auctions’ in Friedrichsdorf, the ‘Flonheim’ fairs and the annually ‘Jour de Pub’ in Paris, etc. Slowly but certain I got to know all the European key-players in this fantastic domain and certainly passion became more and more devotion.   Probably the Christies Amsterdam 2 auction on the Andreas Maurer collection in November 1996 was one of the highlights in my enamel career, over 400 signs in 240 lots and a sales total of NLG 750.376,-


As to personal taste - and some of my favourite signs - are those made in Germany and shipped to South America (Argentina/Uruguay) around 1930. Signs like CINZANO Vermouth (signed Leonetto Cappiello),  QUILMES CRISTAL (signed Malaga Grenet ‘23), QUILMES BOCK (signed Jean D’YLEN, the artist who also designed SPA MONOPOLE), GALLETITAS, KALISAY (Agencia London), ANIS del MONO (signed Ramon Casas), etc.    Definitely some of these signs were very limited productions, therefor often extremely rare to find, sometimes found in good conditions (due to better climate), stunning – and catchy designs and yes, as a result of all that they often were the absolute highlights at live auctions fetching worldrecord-prices, often even surpassing European top-signs in terms of designs ànd value.  My god what where we always pleasant surprised when a fully packed auction hall started applauding of enjoyment when the hammer knocked down another record !


After having informed myself about Argentina I decided around 2001/2002 to make the big jump overseas towards Buenos Aires/ Argentina. Some good leads brought me straight to the right people, and before I even realized I was crating and shipping heavy weight flightcases with huge ‘fragile’ labels from Buenos Aires (AR) and Montevideo (UR) to Belgium.   Many good quality signs - even some that were never seen before -  found a way to Europe.  Several  unique signs were found in the next years and I was flying over frequently since shipping with courier services wasn’t always safe and secure.  The economical - and political instability in Argentina, in that period, made it also very difficult to export anything out of the Capital Federal.         


After 2005/2006 the export of good quality topsigns from Argentina dropped down drastically and not too many interesting ‘chapas’ turned up anymore.   The quality of what was found became less interesting, and the start of a digital age and lifestyle, digital photography, internet, e-mail, ebay, etc. result in many direct online overseas lower quality offers these days.  The golden years for carteles in South America are certainly over today, which in a way is good for those collectors who decided to invest in good quality signs at the best moment back then.


Finally the time was there to start thinking about a decent place to display most of our private treasures and be able to get the daily enjoyment of all the investments and adventures. So we built the first bricks of our house nearby Antwerp, and we are happy to see that the next generation in our family is also bitten by the same enamel-microbe already. It is quite certain that we shall always be chasing vintage enamel signs, and help private collectors worldwide in finding the missing – and favourite items in their sign-collections. I am in the business for almost 25 years now, and the obsessed passion will probably never die :).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Francis Bracke – Emailleborden.be