NEW YORK CITY — After a long, tumultuous journey, Hans Sachs’ multimillion-dollar poster collection has been rescued from Germany — and will be sold to the highest bidder beginning Friday at an auction house in New York.
Despite the collection’s artistic and financial value, what really makes an impression is not the works’ stylistic diversity or price tag — it’s the sweeping historical and legal drama behind them.
Surrendered by the German Historical Museum in the fall, the collection got its start in the 1890s, when a family friend gave Sachs — then 17 — posters depicting Sarah Bernhardt on the Paris stage.
Over the following decades, the Berlin-bred Sachs would become a renowned collector, building an artistic trove that in 1926 encompassed more than 10,000 posters. The collection would include pieces by top-flight artists from across Europe — including Toulouse-Lautrec, some of whose works Sachs later smuggled out of Nazi Germany.
Rather than shielding the pieces from public view, Sachs considered it his mission to share the art with European society. As the founder and president of Verein der Plakatfreunde, an organization devoted to poster art, Sachs published and edited the group’s periodical, helping to generate recognition of the genre as a legitimate artistic form.
A patriot who displayed his posters on German U-boats during World War I, Sachs would later serve as an artistic consultant to the private and public sectors. When Germany dissolved universal conscription after World War I, it was Sachs whom the new government sought for advice on how to attract volunteers through advertising.
But Hitler’s takeover in 1933 threw Sachs’ life into a tailspin. In 1938, the Gestapo declared several of his anti-Nazi posters impermissible — as well as criminal — and confiscated the entire collection. He never saw the pieces again.
After a brief imprisonment at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Sachs immigrated to the US and tried to start over. But the theft of his life’s work inflicted a deep wound.
Following the war, Sachs inquired about the collection’s whereabouts, and in 1966 located a portion of it in East Germany. Communist officials, who initially told him the posters had probably been destroyed during British bombing raids on the Gestapo’s Berlin headquarters, rebuffed his request to show the posters overseas. Sachs died in 1974.
The story froze there for several decades — until Sachs’ son, a Florida airline pilot named Peter, retired and began his own investigation. In 2005, his efforts led to a startling discovery — about a third of his father’s collection was safe and sound, and was being held by the German Historical Museum in the former East Berlin. The senior Sachs had fastidiously labeled each piece with a stamp or sticker bearing his name and the poster’s year of creation; there was no mistaking that the works were his.
But the subsequent legal confrontation, launched in 2008, was complicated by the partial financial compensation that the elder Sachs had received after the war from West Germany — approximately $50,000. Lawyers for the museum argued that the payment meant the posters no longer belonged to the Sachs family — a claim that was finally and decisively rejected by the German Supreme Court last year, following a battle Peter Sachs describes as “long, bitter and unnecessary.”
With the collection back in his family’s possession, Peter Sachs has chosen to sell the bulk of the recovered pieces, roughly 4,000 of which will be sold by Guernsey’s Auctions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. (In addition to in-person sales, purchases can be made online.)
Arlan Ettinger, the company’s president, estimates the collection’s value at between $5.75 million and $20 million, with individual posters expected to go for between $500 and $40,000. The biggest single buy is likely to be a classic, widely recognizable piece by German painter and printmaker Walter Schnackenberg, which depicts early-20th-century cabaret performers Peter Pathe and Maria Hagen.
While Peter Sachs will be auctioning much of his father’s collection, he’ll give away an additional 800 posters to museums and universities.
Donating the collection to public institutions honors his father’s passion for sharing art, but the return of the pieces themselves may be the younger Sachs’ greatest tribute.
“I can’t begin to describe what this means to me on a personal level,” he told The Times of Israel. “It’s almost like a final gift to my father, a final recognition of the life he lost and never got back.”