AP Interview: Posters seized by Nazis being sold

January 17, 2013 - 11:32 AM
Germany US  Looted Art

FILE - In this May 16, 2006 file photo Peter Sachs holds up a book with some of his father, Hans Sachs' favorite posters at his home in Sarasota, Fla. Seized by the Nazis in 1938 from a Jewish man on the orders of Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, then held behind the Iron Curtain in Communist East Berlin, thousands of rare posters are finally back in the hands of collector Hans Sachs' family. After a seven-year battle for their return from a German museum where they ended up after the fall of the Berlin Wall, almost entirely tucked away in storage, Sachs' heir, told The Associated Press he hopes auctioning off the majority of the posters will mean they will finally be on display for those who love them like his father did, after he failed to find a museum willing to take the whole collection on. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara,File)

BERLIN (AP) — Seized by the Nazis in 1938 from a Jewish man on the orders of Hitler's Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, then held behind the Iron Curtain in Communist East Berlin, thousands of rare posters are finally back in the hands of collector Hans Sachs' family.

After a seven-year battle for their return from a German museum where they ended up after the fall of the Berlin Wall, almost entirely tucked away in storage, Sachs' heir told The Associated Press he hopes auctioning off the majority of the posters will mean they will finally be on display for those who love them like his father did, after he failed to find a museum willing to take the whole collection on.

"There's of course no practical way that I could frame and hang 4,300 posters, so I just didn't see any other alternative than to do what we're doing," Peter Sachs, 75, said by telephone from his home in Las Vegas. "But I don't feel guilty in any way whatsoever — even with them being auctioned I think it's far preferable that they will wind up in the hands of people who truly enjoy them and appreciate them rather than sitting in a museum's storage for another 70 years without seeing the light of day."

The auction at Guernsey's in New York runs Friday through Sunday and features 1,233 of the posters, including one designed by Edvard Munch to advertise an exhibit of his own works in Zurich in 1922, an 1898 poster by Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt, and even James Montgomery Flagg's 1917 famous "Uncle Sam" recruiting poster "I Want You For U.S. Army."

They include advertisements for exhibitions, cabarets, movies and consumer products, as well as political propaganda — all rare, with only small original print runs. The value of the 4,300 poster collection is estimated at between €4.5 million and €16 million ($6 million and $21 million).

There is no reserve price set for the auction, but the individual posters being sold range in estimated value from about $500 to $40,000, said Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's. They date back to 1885, and many are the only known surviving copies, and are in excellent condition, Ettinger said.

"Posters were created to be ephemeral, to be temporary things, to last an average of six weeks because they were designed to be posted up on a wall, whether it was to announce a show at a cabaret club or a political event," said Ettinger.

"That we're even talking about things that are so fragile is miraculous, and despite the incredible journey these posters have been through ... in some cases they look as vibrant as the day they were printed; the colors are so vivid."

Two further auctions are envisioned for September and likely next January, but Sachs said he also plans to hold onto about 800 posters that he will donate to a museum or museums that show an interest in putting them on display for the public.

Right now the focus is Jewish museums, specifically with Holocaust related exhibits, though other establishments would also be considered, said Gary Osen, the New Jersey-based attorney who represented Sachs in his fight for the return of the posters from Berlin's German Historical Museum.

Osen said talks are also under way for a possible special exhibition of some of the posters at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial — the former Nazi camp on the outskirts of Berlin where Sachs' father was briefly held before he fled Germany for the United States.

"The net result will be that a substantially larger number of the posters from this collection will be on public view than would have been had they remained in the German Historical Museum," Osen said.

Sachs is also going to hold onto four of the posters for himself — including an advertisement for Manoli cigarettes by artist Lucian Bernhard. He said it has special significance to him because Bernhard co-founded the art publication Das Plakat, or The Poster, with his father in 1910 and was a family friend.

"As a child I knew Lucian Bernhard. He used to come and visit at the house, so that one had a personal meaning to me," he said.

Born in 1881, Hans Sachs began collecting posters while in high school. By 1905, he was Germany's leading private poster collector, with an eventual total of 12,500 posters — many displayed in a specially built gallery in his home.

The entire collection was seized in the summer of 1938 on the order of Goebbels, who wanted it for a museum, when Peter Sachs was a year old.

On Nov. 9, 1938, during the Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews, Hans Sachs was arrested and thrown into Sachsenhausen. He was released two weeks later, thanks to the efforts of his wife who somehow managed to wrangle British visas for him and the family. They fled and eventually ended up in the United States.

After the war, Hans Sachs assumed the collection had been destroyed and accepted compensation of about 225,000 German marks (then worth about $50,000) from West Germany in 1961.

He learned five years later, however, that part of the collection had survived the war and been turned over to an East Berlin museum. It's not known what happened to the other posters.

Sachs wrote the communist authorities about seeing the posters or even bringing an exhibit to the West to no avail. He died in 1974 without ever seeing them again.

The posters became part of the German Historical Museum's collection in 1990, after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

Peter Sachs only learned of the existence of the collection in 2005, and began fighting then for their return.

Legal battles went all the way to Germany's top federal appeals court, which ruled last March in favor of Sachs, saying that if the museum kept the posters it would be akin to perpetuating the crimes of the Nazis.

Since being returned the posters Sachs has repaid the 1961 restitution payment, and said he was relieved that the ordeal was now over.

"I don't really feel a sense of victory as much as I do of vindication," he said. "I think it's absurd that this should have occurred in the first place; I think the museum simply should have relinquished them in the beginning on moral grounds."