Posters Lost to Nazis Are Recovered, and Up for Sale
Two poster collections that were lost to their owners under Nazi rule in the 1930s are now for sale in Manhattan. Each collection is made up of thousands of pieces, many of them bearing the signatures of designers as prominent as Alphonse Mucha or Gustav Klimt.
On the block: a Swiss tourism poster that belonged to the Berlin collector Dr. Hans Sachs, and was returned to his family after a decades-long fight.
Dr. Hans Sachs
The original owners were Jewish; their families fled Europe before World War II, leaving the collections behind. Stacks of posters were taken to museums for storage after the war and only recently returned to descendants.
The two collectors, Dr. Hans Sachs of Berlin and Julius Paul of Vienna, knew each other and frequented the same suppliers. “They had poster lust through and through,” Nicholas Lowry, the president of Swann Auction Galleries in New York, said in an interview.
Dr. Sachs, a dentist whose patient roster included Einstein, neatly cataloged his 30,000 posters and related graphic art. He also published design magazines and exhibited his holdings across Europe and in South Africa and Asia; the paper suffered tears and creases on the way.
He drew attention to what had been an underappreciated field. “Everywhere an ever-increasing number of circles interested in poster art sprung up,” he wrote in a 1957 memoir. He added that he focused on categories including “forbidden, religious, zoological posters, posters of the dance or festivals, of war and revolution, even plagiarisms.”
The memoir was reprinted this year in catalogs for Guernsey’s auction company in New York. It is offering Sachs posters in batches of about 1,300 each, and the second of three sales (with estimates starting around $500 per poster) will take place on Nov. 22 through 24.
On Dec. 18, Swann will offer about 350 posters (with estimates mostly from $500 to $15,000 each) collected by Mr. Paul, a rolling-paper magnate. He kept track of his 6,372 acquisitions on index cards, listing dates, artists, titles and image type. He had a stamp made for the word “figural” so that he did not have to keep rewriting it.
In the last few years, the meanderings of the Sachs and Paul collections have kept lawyers busy.
During buying sprees in the 1910s and ’20s, Dr. Sachs commissioned aluminum racks for storing his graphics. They narrowly survived two major fires at his homes. In 1938 Nazi officials seized everything for planned museum galleries devoted to the “art of the merchant.”
The Nazis were particularly pleased because the dentist handed over “a considerable number of posters from anti-Hitler election campaigns for their archives, which they had lacked,” he wrote.
On what he described as “the blackest day of my life,” Dr. Sachs was forced to load his own material onto Nazi trucks. A friend helped him smuggle out a few Toulouse-Lautrec posters, which he sold for pittances after he resettled in New York. He studied at Harvard’s dental school and rebuilt his career.
After the war, German bureaucrats told him the posters had been destroyed and gave him about $50,000 as compensation. But he later learned that part of the collection had survived. His efforts to arrange a viewing failed, and he died in 1974, at 92.
His son, Peter Sachs, who died at 75 last month, spent nearly a decade fighting for restitution, eventually retrieving 4,344 posters under a ruling by a German appeals court last year. The fate of the rest of Dr. Sachs’s purchases is not clear. Suzanne Glass, a journalist in Manhattan and a great-granddaughter of Hans Sachs, is making a documentary about the collection, incorporating interviews with Peter Sachs.
Institutions have been bidding at Guernsey’s sales. In January the Museum of Modern Art in New York paid about $2,500 for a 1907 ad for a German satirical magazine depicting a flea leaving a trail of blood drops. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, acquired 10 pieces, printed in France, Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Netherlands, promoting cigarettes, tires, alcohol, shoes, sports demonstrations and a left-wing newspaper.
Sachs posters have already been exhibited at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach and the Dutch Poster Museum in Hoorn, the Netherlands. The Dutch exhibition catalog shows one of Dr. Sachs’s handwritten labels, “German nonpolitical,” scrawled on paper torn from a dentistry text as the Nazis watched. The catalog also reproduces one of Mr. Paul’s index cards, printed on cardboard rectangles cut from rolling-paper packages.
Mr. Paul wrote notes along the edges of his posters as well, and the Albertina museum in Vienna, which retained them for decades after the war, added their own stamp. But the provenance trail is cloudy.
Swann Auction Galleries
A poster advertisement for a Croatian liqueur that was originally owned by the Viennese collector Julius Paul.
Mr. Paul died at 70 in January 1938, leaving his 6,372 works of graphic art to a nephew, Gaston Belf. Months later, Mr. Belf fled to Czechoslovakia and then New York, and soon afterward, 3,600 of the posters, with index cards, turned up for sale at a Vienna book dealer. (The remaining 2,772 pieces have apparently vanished.) The Albertina bought the group for about $1,000; the dealer’s correspondence about the transaction ends with a hearty “Heil Hitler!”
No one knows whether Mr. Belf, who died at 93 in 2002, was robbed of his collection, abandoned it or sold it under duress. In the United States, he became a hardware wholesaler and an amateur painter, and he occasionally mentioned the family’s roomful of posters in Vienna. About five years ago, Albertina researchers realized that the collection had belonged to Jews who fled, and returned it to Mr. Paul’s descendants.
In addition to Swann, the Reinhold-Brown Gallery in New York is selling the posters on the family’s behalf. Museums including the Museum of Modern Art and the Hungarian National Gallery have been acquiring pieces at Reinhold-Brown on which the ink seems practically fresh.
“The Albertina rarely, if ever, showed them,” Susan Reinhold, a co-owner of the gallery, said in an interview while leafing through ads for soap, New Year’s parties, a bar billing itself as a “beer clinic,” government bonds, poster exhibitions and political parties on the far right and left.
“There’s a lot of bloody posters here,” Ms. Reinhold said, referring to battlefields and war casualties depicted in the propaganda.
Mr. Lowry, at Swann, said that when he examined the Paul works, “well over half of these images I’d never seen before.” And while poster collectors are usually not interested in provenance, he said, in this case, “it makes the story irresistible.”
Next year, Swann will offer Paul posters depicting travel destinations.
Some new owners of Paul material are already reselling it. Christie’s in London has auctioned movie posters depicting a Russian worker trapped in machinery that went for around $22,000, Oliver Twist ($2,800) and a sphinx (which did not sell).