War and Peace — Posters Put Ease and Tensions on the Walls from Swann Galleries

When I visited Pier Antiques Show and Stella Armory Antiques Show last year, I didn’t stay long at the booths which were selling posters, although I observed a younger crowd hovering over those piles. For me, the posters (mostly movie posters in the show) have too much commercial flavor. I am definitely not the kind of person who would put a poster of “Silent Lambs” on my living room wall.

But a visit to the Swann Galleries today opened my eyes and mind. The current vintage posters sale, which will be auctioned on Wednesday, has such a depth and variety in topics, styles and eras that almost would be guaranteed to find something that they like.

Contrary to the so-called high art, which has been reflecting the tastes of a small elite group composed of artists, critics and deep-pocketed collectors, posters — equipped with exuberant colors and vivacious patterns — are born with public appeal and communicative power. In this sale, I found commercial posters for some brands or companies, propaganda posters for special periods and interestingly Mather works incentive posters made in the ’20s and 30s that reminded me of the slogans used in the pre-Cultural-Revolution era of China (except of course with bolder designs and somewhat humorous messages).

For me, two aspects attract me the most. First is a visual pleasure. The sale comes with a catalog with one of the best print quality I have ever seen. Yet no print can replace the visual joy of standing in front of a five-foot poster of rich colors and strong contrast. Secondly, the vast topics featured in sales (including categories such as beach and summer resort, WWI & II propaganda, Mather work incentive, Art Nouveau, food & beverage, and auto, airlines & ocean liners) when viewed as a collective, bring a dazzling encyclopedic exhibition of politics, fashion and another social context of the past.

KARL KOEHLER & VICTOR ANCONA (DATES UNKNOWN) THIS IS THE ENEMY. 1942. 34x24 inches, 87x61 cm. Grinnell, New York.
KARL KOEHLER & VICTOR ANCONA (DATES UNKNOWN) THIS IS THE ENEMY. 1942. 34×24 inches, 87×61 cm. Grinnell, New York. Lot 99, Estimated $2,500-$3,500

I was immediately captivated by a post of Karl Koehler & Victor Ancona, which won the National War Poster Competition in 1942, an effort of the Roosevelt administration to counter the anti-war voices of media barons such as William Randolph Hearst. When I asked Mr. Lowry, the president of the Swann Galleries and guest appraiser in the Antiques Roadshow, how to judge the rarity of posters, he said there were no solid statistics of how many were made for specific ones. Research regarding to the rarity is based on auction records. “For this particular one, I have seen 12 posters in the past 15 years.” He commented.

Rarity is one thing that can somehow be quantified, yet collectability is subjective and personal. When I asked who were the typical collectors of the vintage posters, Mr. Lowry’s answer was similar to what Heather Coleman, the vintage photo dealer said in the previous post. “People are looking for different things in the posters,” said Mr. Lowry, “Some people like war posters, some only buy those with eagles.”  Some posters happen to have luxury contents that may appeal to multiple collectors from different angles, thus vintage posters purport the notion of modernism in that they reflect what is in viewers’ minds. This poster strikes me with its diametric extremity:  a caricature depiction of a Nazi official which does not amuse but chills the viewer. The colorless monocle with the reflection of an executed victim provides a crude solemnity and urgency which counter all the angular and comic facial features rendered in warm skin tones. The title says it all: the enemy is not just persons, but the detachment and indifference to life, dignity and freedom.

Geo’s favorite is lot 113 when he spotted it in the catalog. It is interesting to find a poster during wartime that advocated books. In the poster, a giant book stands like a castle behind a group of Nazi soldiers who are burning books. On the cover of the giant book, it reads: “People die,  but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny. In this war, we know, books are weapons.” Geo said this reminded him of the quote on the Jefferson Memorial: “I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” The words still resonate today in the age of Amazon Kindle and iPhone.

S. BRODER (DATES UNKNOWN) BOOKS ARE WEAPONS IN THE WAR OF IDEAS. 1942. 28x20 1/8 inches, 71x51 cm. U. S. Government Printing Office.  Lot 113 Estimated $400 to $600
S. BRODER (DATES UNKNOWN) BOOKS ARE WEAPONS IN THE WAR OF IDEAS. 1942. 28×20 1/8 inches, 71×51 cm. U. S. Government Printing Office. Lot 113 is Estimated $400 to $600

When I brought the catalog to one of my co-workers, an MIT graduate last year,  he was amazed by the images, in particular of those related to the war and machines. Even though Mr. Lowry didn’t talk about the demography of poster collecting, I have found that they are more attractive than the 19th-century fine arts to young collectors. First, posters are relatively easy to carry compared to canvas art within gilded shadow boxes. Most of the posters in the current sale which I have seen are mounted on archival paper which is further mounted on canvas to prevent crease or tear. (Rebecca, the Media Relations specialist from the gallery suggested a UV-filtered glass will prevent colors from fading to great extent.) Secondly, the subject matter is more direct yet with enough subtlety to challenge minds. Lastly the bigger, the better. The grand size of vintage posters can engulf the viewer, especially in relatively small bachelor’s apartments or those of New Yorkers. Those propaganda posters, once again, speak loud and clear of the owner’s taste, credos or in some cases a sense of humor.

A special thanks should be given to Mr. Lowry who not only spent time answering my beginner-level questions but also gave me a catalog, which I think is indispensable for serious collectors because of its print quality, well-documented description, and reference list in the end. For someone like me, it opens a new door to look at an area of collecting that I had overlooked in the past. In fact, the catalog intrigued me like a great novel. Why can’t history supplement reading books be illustrated with vintage posters? The encoding of historical events and political opinions in visual splendor makes the most lively reading experience and urges me to investigate more from other references. (I did so when I read lot 325, a group of three posters about Mayor Low.)

On the way from the preview with my friend Huan who had never been to a poster sale preview before, he commented: “I really love a lot of them. If I owned one, I would put the pictures on my T-shirt! They would look so cool! ” Well, he is hooked.


The Vintage Posters sale preview is available on Tuesday, Aug 4. The sale begins on Wednesday.

4 thoughts on “War and Peace — Posters Put Ease and Tensions on the Walls from Swann Galleries

  1. I went to the Swann viewing over the weekend and was equally impressed. You should also check out Posters Please–I think they’re the other big poster auction house/dealer in New York. Their summer exhibition is pretty good, but their September show looks off the charts awesome. I’ve also been reading their poster blog on and off–they have some wacky (but witty) person writing humorous commentary about vintage posters they have for sale http://www.postersplease.com/posterblog/


    1. Thank you Rebecca. I have found that blog is very interesting to read. Will go back later to read more. I just wish I had more wall space. Those posters are huge.


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