SO CLOSE! Swann Galleries Sells the Iconic I Want You Poster for $14,300–$101 Shy of a Record

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Update: Swann sold the 1917 ‘I Want You’ World War I recruiting poster for $14,300–a strong result, and just $101 short of a new world auction record for the poster.

What you see: A 1917 American recruiting poster for World War I, illustrated by James Montgomery Flagg. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $7,000 to $10,000.

Who was James Montgomery Flagg? He was an American artist and illustrator. Unquestionably, his illustration for this poster is his most famous work. While he did not create the concept of Uncle Sam–credit for that goes to cartoonist Thomas Nast–Flagg codified the costume and appearance of America’s avatar with this image. He didn’t draw  a finger-pointing Uncle Sam expressly for the poster; he did it in 1916 as cover art for Leslie magazine and repurposed it. Flagg also unintentionally immortalized himself by using a self-portrait for Uncle Sam. Flagg died in 1960 at the age of 82.

Why was this poster such a huge hit during World War I? “It trips all the bells and whistles–psychology, guilt, alpha male power, patriotism. And it’s an attractive image,” says Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries.

It looks like there’s a direct relationship between Flagg’s illustration and a 1914 British WWI recruiting poster featuring Lord Kitchener “There’s arguably more than a direct relationship. He lifted the premise straight from it,” Lowry says. “But it’s so different from the Kitchener poster. And can you copyright a gesture? There are World War I posters from Italy, Canada, and Germany that have the same motif, calling you out, putting you on the spot. The Kitchener is rare as hell and not nearly as attractive as this one [Flagg’s take].”

How many ‘I Want You’ posters were printed in America in 1917? “It was THE most printed poster during the war,” says Lowry, adding that an estimated four million were produced. “It instantly resonated. Everybody who saw it was gripped by it.”

Flagg’s poster was so famous that it was re-issued during World War II. How many were printed for World War II? And how do you tell the two versions apart? Lowry says about 400,000 were printed for World War II, and the later version isn’t nearly as valuable as the 1917, though there are fewer of them. Swann has sold the WWII-era poster for as much as $3,600, but it sold the 1917 original for $14,400 in 2013–a world auction record. Fortunately, telling them apart is easy. “They’re very different,” Lowry says, noting that the 1917 original is bigger, and the slogan on the World War II version rephrased the slogan to add a “the,” making it less grammatically awkward.

How has the poster performed at auction over time? “The August 6, 2003 Swann poster auction was the year of the Iraq war,” says Lowry, explaining that the sale contained a 1917 Flagg poster with an estimate of $3,000 to $4,000. “We put it on the cover not because it was a rare poster, and not because it hasn’t been seen, but because America was at war. The poster resonates somehow. It sold for $12,650 in 2003. From that point on, the poster has brought dramatic prices, and the prices are even bigger when the poster shows up in really good condition.”

The particular poster in the August 2017 sale has a grade of A–the top grade of the condition scale–and house records show that Swann has never before handled a grade A example of this poster. What are the odds that it sets a new record at auction? “It’s in as good a position to break the world record as any,” he says. “It’s so famous, it belies conventional collecting norms.”

How to bid: The ‘I Want You for U.S. Army’ poster is lot 141 in Swann Auction Galleries’s Vintage Posters sale on August 2.

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Swann Galleries is on Instagram and Twitter, and Nicholas Lowry is on Instagram and Twitter as well.

Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

SOLD At Slotin: A Medium Size American Flag Sculpture by Ab the Flag Man Fetches $1,200

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Update: The medium size American flag by Ab the Flag Man sold for $1,200.

What you see: An undated piece by American folk artist Ab the Flag Man. It is described as a “Medium Size American Flag.” Slotin Folk Art Auction estimates it at $600 to $900, plus $75 for shipping.

Who is Ab the Flag Man? “He has a real name, but no one ever calls him by it,” says Steve Slotin, of Slotin Folk Art Auction, an auctioneer in Buford, Ga., that specializes in self-taught, outsider, and folk art. Ab the Flag Man was born with the name Roger Lee Ivens in Tennessee in 1964. He picked up the nickname “Abstract” during his school days, after asking his teacher about abstract art. It got shortened to “Ab” by co-workers on construction sites. He traces his interest in flags to the age of seven, when he witnessed the military funeral of his father. The sight of his casket covered with a flag never left him.

How long has Ab the Flag Man been an artist? He quit carpentry in 1995 to make art full-time, but it’s unclear precisely when he began–it could have been the late 1980s or early 1990s. He was discovered in a parking lot in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood, where he had set up alongside another folk artist to sell his works. “Specific dates in folk art are hard to come by. It’s not like he came out of art school and we tracked his progress,” says Slotin. “With Ab, people liked his stuff, and it was immediately popular.”

How prolific is he? “We’ve been doing auctions for 25 years, and since we began, we’ve had a few in each auction,” says Slotin. “There’s got to be a thousand pieces out there.”

Does Ab the Flag Man work alone, or does he have assistants? “That’s the thing with folk artists. There’s no team behind them, and no staff that prepares [materials],” Slotin says. “Typically, it’s all them.”

Wait, are there chair legs in there? “You see furniture legs in a lot of his stuff,” Slotin says. “Furniture legs, blocks, parts of house moldings, discards, it varies. It’s all scraps.”

What are the dimensions of this piece? It’s 35 inches long, 21 inches high, and four inches deep. “It really pops out at you,” Slotin says. “It has a lot of movement to it, like it’s waving at you. Most of his pieces have movement, like they’re waving in the wind.”

What else makes this artwork special? “The great thing about almost all of our artists is they’re untrained and unschooled. They don’t have art school or European influences,” Slotin says. “A kid out of art school, who’s trained on what is and isn’t art, makes art that’s pretty homogenized. With Ab, his background is in construction, and his dad passed away–you see his experience in his work. And no one saw it [Ab’s style of flag-themed art] till he started doing it. That’s what I like. What he’s doing is original.”

How to bid: The medium size American flag is Lot 322 in Slotin Folk Art Auction’s Spring Masterpiece sale, taking place April 29 and 30 in Buford.

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Image is courtesy of Slotin Folk Art Auction.

SOLD: That Splendid 19th Century Fire Company Hat Commands $18,750 at Freeman’s

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Update: The Franklin Fire Company parade hat sold for $18,750.

What you see: A painted and decorated leather and felt parade hat for the Franklin Fire Company, a volunteer fire-fighting company which was active in Germantown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It dates to between 1840 and 1860, stands six and a half inches tall, and measures a bit over 13 inches in diameter. Freeman’s estimates it at $8,000 to $12,000.

What was the Franklin Fire Company? It was one of several volunteer fire-fighting companies in pre-Civil War America. “It was kind of a club, but you didn’t just get together as a fraternity–you did something. You saved property, you saved lives. You were heroes,” says Lynda Cain, vice president and department head for American furniture, folk and decorative arts at Freeman’s. “Fires were an everyday terror in 18th and 19th century America. Heating, cooking, and lighting were all hazardous. Volunteer fire-fighters had a hugely important role to play. The company was a great melting pot. You could have laborers, lawyers, and doctors. You were selected by ballot, and not everybody got in.”

Why did someone in the Franklin Fire Company need a parade hat? “This was for special occasions, such as celebrations and competitive events. The hats emphasized their group, their fraternity,” Cain says. “It shows your affiliation. It advertised your fire department, and your membership in it.”

Who in the Franklin Fire Company would have worn this hat? Everyone would have worn matching red parade hats with Franklin’s face on the front. “These guys would have proudly gathered and marched in their groups,” she says, noting that the initials ‘W.G.’ are lettered on the crown of the hat in black and gilded paint. “They had capes, too, but fewer of those survive.”

Who painted the portrait of Benjamin Franklin on the front? We don’t know, but it wasn’t the same artisan who made the hat. “It’s beautifully done,” Cain says, adding that it’s the first hat of its type with a Benjamin Franklin image to come to auction. “This particular hat has Franklin, but others had Washington, or Lafayette, or eagles, or classical figures, or scantily clad ladies in the 19th century sense.”

How rare are fire company parade hats? “I’ve been here 15 years and I’ve had five,” she says. “I love this hat. It’s been cleaned, but it’s in very fine shape. And Philadelphia and Franklin are a perfect pair.”

How to bid: The Franklin Fire Company parade hat is lot 148 in the American Furniture, Folk & Decorative Arts sale at Freeman’s in Philadelphia on April 26.

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Image is courtesy of Freeman’s.