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Rare posters looted by Nazis hit auction block
By Jim Rutledge

NEW YORK, N.Y. — A rare collection of pre-World War II posters seized by the Gestapo in 1938 will be sold at Guernsey’s Auction House by the son of the collection’s owner who recently retrieved the 4,000 piece collection from a German museum following a courtroom battle.

As plans for the Jan. 18-20 auction are being finalized and the posters are photographed and numbered, it was only this past fall that the nearly 4,000 poster collection arrived in the United States. The posters, carefully carted in special air cargo containers, arrived at JFK airport just as Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the Northeast coast. The journey was the accumulation of a long, exhausting, sometimes heart-breaking, courtroom battle as the collector’s son, Peter Sachs, emerged a winner. Subsequently, Germany’s highest court slammed the books shut on the case and ordered the posters returned to the 75-year old Sachs from Sarasota, Fla.

It was five years ago, in 2007 that Sachs, a retired airline pilot, learned his father’s poster collection had been stashed away in basement storage vaults at Berlin’s German Historical Museum. Almost immediately, Sachs sought the return of the collection, but his requests were rejected. It was then that he launched a courtroom battle in German courts against the museum.

According to Guernsey’s experts, the posters are the only known examples in the world of many of the posters images. Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey, estimates the collection to be worth $6 million to $21 million. Many of the posters, because of the rarity and the historic accounts of the collection, could reach tens of thousands of dollars for a single poster. Two thirds of the collection, some more than 150 year’s old, were designed by German artists with the remaining consisting of French, English, Italian, Austrian, Hungarian, Scandinavian and American poster artists.

The posters come in normal poster sizes and cover a range of interests. The posters advertise various events and consumer products (from food, cigarettes to the first automobile); theatrical performances in cabarets, opera and early film; political propaganda and scenes of war; museum exhibitions, travel, and sports themes. Most were printed in small original runs that could drive up the auction poster prices.

This story, however, has all the makings of a major motion picture with intrigue, adventure, smuggled rare posters, Nazi spies, concentration camp prisoners, escapes and a climatic legal battle to reclaim the stolen works.

And as the story continues, it could be the happiest ending that the Sachs family could ever have imagined.

The story and the collection began more than 120 years ago.

Sachs’ father Josef Hans Sachs, as a teenage in the 1890s, had a fascination for strong graphic art, particularly Parisian posters designed by the likes of Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha. Sachs’ interest was also drawn to the modernized art form undertaken by German artists in Berlin and Munich. In 1905, when he was 24-years old, it was reported that Sachs had the largest private collection in Germany.

By age 40, after completing dental school and while in practice, the elder Sachs built an addition to his house to display the collection. Dubbed The Museum of Applied Arts, he opened his art collection to the public.

During this period, Germany was changing and Nazi fanaticism was gaining momentum. In 1935, because of his Jewish heritage, Sachs became a target of the Nuremberg Laws. Fearing that the Nazis would confiscate his collection, Sachs transferred ownership to a non-Jewish banker friend. But before Sachs could complete the transfer, Germany’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels ordered the Gestapo to seize the collection, which by the time had reached more than 12,000 posters. Goebbels, who orchestrated a fear campaign which, in part, attacked modernism and burned books, used the Gestapo to steal the posters.

Subsequently, Sachs was arrested during “Kristalinacht” (The Night of Terror; Nov. 9-10, 1938) and was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside of Berlin. Twenty days later, after pleas from Sachs’ wife Felicia, he was released. Within days, he and his wife, and 14-month old son Peter - with a few Toulouse-Lautrec posters rolled up and hidden in their luggage - escaped to London, and then to New York.

Other artist’s posters that Sachs had acquired prior to being seized included Steinlen, Cassandre, Cheret, Bernhard, Edel, Gipkens, Klinger, Carlu, Schnackenberg, Dufau, Grasset, Fennecker, Hohlwein, Kainer, Pechstein, Scheurich, Biro, Levendecker, Christy, and Flagg. In l911, Sachs organized the first poster collecting society and published an international poster magazine, Das Plakat (The Poster).

After the war was over and believing the Nazis had destroyed the collection, Sachs applied for reparations under the Federal Republic of Germany’s refund policy. In 1961, the West Germany government paid him 225,000 German Marks, or about $50,000. On advice of friends, believing the offer was a generous one, he accepted.

Five years later, however, Sachs discovered that about 8,000 of his posters had survived the war and were held by an East German museum. Sachs asked to meet East German authorities and offer his expertise to help maintain the collection. A few months later, the government rejected his offer. Sachs died in 1974, never to see his collection again.

When the Berlin Wall fell in l989, the poster collection was transferred to the German Historical Museum in Berlin. Mysteriously, however, fewer than 5,000 posters made it to the museum. What happened to the other 3,000 posters remains a mystery.

Sachs’ son Peter had no idea the collection existed until 2005. It was then that he began his quest to have the posters returned to him.

Poster experts believe this is the most significant collection of rare posters ever to come up at auction. Guernsey’s experts have declined to put a value on each of the posters only characterizing the sale as “an unprecedented auction featuring countless posters of which there is no precedent for comparison.”

What is believed to be the most valuable poster ever sold in auction is Metropolis by German artist Heinz Schulz-Nevdamm to promote his 1927 film. It sold to a collector in 2005 for $690,000. A handful of 1930s U.S. movie posters have sold in actions for $200,000 to $600,000 including the 1932 The Bride of Frankenstein movie poster.

Although the auction date has been set for Jan. 18-20, Ettinger said it is his hope that a private buyer emerges in the meantime to acquire the collection intact, thereby, “preserving the integrity of this unprecedented body of material.”

The auction will also be offered online and by telephone bidding. A 22 percent buyer’s premium will be charged with each lot.

A 24-page book that Josef Hans Sachs wrote himself discussing his life and his posters will be included in the auction catalog.

Contact: (212) 794-2280

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