A collection of more than 4,300 pre- World War II posters looted by the Gestapo is to go on sale in New York, months after a court ordered a Berlin museum to return them to the son of a Jewish dentist who fled Nazi Germany.
The Bundesgerichtshof in Karlsruhe, the highest court in Germany for civil affairs, in March ordered the restitution of the posters to Peter Sachs, a retired airline pilot from Sarasota, Florida. The Deutsches Historisches Museum, where the posters were kept until their October return, estimated their value at more than 4.5 million euros ($5.8 million).
The history of Hans Sachs’s collection and the fact that it includes many unique pieces mean that estimate is probably “on the low side,” said Arlan Ettinger, the president of Guernsey’s auction house, which is handling the sale. Ettinger said he’s hoping to find a single buyer for the entire collection before the first auction, which is scheduled for Jan. 18, 2013.
“It’s thrilling to handle this formidable, wonderful and historically important collection,” Ettinger said by telephone. “Eight large crates weighing thousands of pounds arrived at JFK airport and had to be picked up at the height of the storm.”
Hans Sachs began collecting posters in his school days in the late 19th century. He published a poster magazine called “Das Plakat,” founded a society and gave lectures. His collection, including works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Ludwig Hohlwein, Lucian Bernhard and Jules Cheret, totaled 12,500 posters and was at the time the biggest in the world.
“It is generally conceded that Sachs was the first serious poster collector,” said Ettinger. “He was astute, had great taste and an extremely keen eye for remarkable graphics.”
The works include advertisements for travel destinations, products such as cigarettes and the first cars, cabaret, opera, art exhibitions and the earliest movies, Ettinger said. There are also propaganda and political posters, he said.
The entire collection was seized by the Nazis in 1938, and when Gestapo officers carted it off, they told Sachs that Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels wanted his posters for a new museum wing dedicated to “business” art.
Sachs was arrested on Nov. 9, 1938, the night of the pogrom against Jews known as Kristallnacht, and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. His wife’s efforts got him freed, and together with Peter, then 14 months old, they fled to the U.S.
He had smuggled out some Toulouse-Lautrec posters, which he sold to feed his family as they began a new life. He never saw his collection again. Assuming it hadn’t survived the war, he accepted compensation of 225,000 deutsche marks (about $50,000 at the time) from the West German government in 1961.
After discovering in 1966 that some of his collection was still intact in East Berlin, Hans Sachs made contact with the communist authorities to try to get the posters loaned abroad for exhibitions. He didn’t succeed before his death in 1974.
His son Peter Sachs fought a five-year legal battle for the return of the posters from the Deutsches Historisches Museum after a German government panel rebuffed his claim in 2007. The Bundesgerichtshof found that Sachs never lost legal ownership of the posters and his heir therefore has the right to possession.
Sachs said in March that the decision was “vindication for my father, a final recognition of the life he lost and never got back.”
Guernsey’s plans to auction the posters in three separate series of three sales, with the first taking place on consecutive days in January, and the second and third series taking place at six-month intervals, Ettinger said.
“We would certainly encourage any institutions or persons interested in acquiring the collection in its entirety to approach us,” he said. He said the auction house has been in talks with museums in Germany, Israel and the U.S.