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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Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

RECORD: The Most Expensive Magic Poster at Auction Stars–of Course–Houdini

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What you see: A 1912 poster touting Harry Houdini performing his famous water torture cell escape. It was printed in London one year after Houdini invented the trick, and it has a B+ condition rating. Potter & Potter sold it in February 2017 for $114,000–an auction record for any magic poster.

How rare is this Houdini poster? “There are three we know of,” says Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter, noting he has examined two of them.

How rare are Houdini posters, generally? “Rare is relative. Houdini had a lot of posters,” he says. “Some exist in only one copy. Some in 20 to 30.”

Is this the first time that Houdini’s water torture cell escape was depicted on a poster? “It’s possible,” Fajuri says, explaining that there is another 1912 poster that shows a closeup of Houdini’s face, upside down and under water, and it’s not clear which poster appeared first.

What was the bidding like? “We started at $25,000. There was active bidding in the room and on the phone from at least five phone bidders, including a few who were new to us,” he says. “There was active participation to $80,000 [around the sum of the previous magic poster record]. It was going to beat the record without a doubt, but I didn’t think it would go as high as it did. A few guys really wanted it. It sold to a phone bidder.”

Why did the poster do so well? Is it because it’s just one of three that exist? “That’s part of it, but it’s also from the Norm Nielsen collection, a very well-established if not legendary collection of posters. Everybody knows him and everybody knows his collection,” he says, adding that Potter & Potter will soon publish The Golden Age of Magic Posters, a limited-edition book based on the auction catalogue. “It’s Houdini. It’s one of his most famous, if not his most famous trick. It’s got all the elements that lead to success.”

How long do you think this auction record will stand? “This is the most expensive magic item sold with the exception of the water torture cell itself,” Fajuri says. “I would think it would stand for a while, but anything could happen. Hopefully, we’ll be the ones to break it.”

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Image is courtesy of Potter & Potter.

An Extra-Rare Original Woodstock Concert Poster Could Command $2,500 at Heritage Auctions

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What you see: An original 1969 Woodstock concert poster that shows just the artwork–no small text–and is signed by Arnold Skolnik, the artist who designed it. It’s in Very Good Plus condition and is estimated at $2,500.

How rare are original Woodstock concert posters in general, and how rare is it to find one that lacks the band names, the concert dates, and other small text? “Woodstock concert posters are rare, and this one is unusual,” says Giles Moon, consignment director of entertainment and music memorabilia at Heritage Auctions, adding, “I think that purist concert poster collectors want the version used to advertise the concert.”

The lot just before this one in the sale is a signed original Woodstock poster that has the small text. Its starting bid is $1,000, but the starting bid for this poster is $1,250. Why? “That’s intriguing. I’m not certain why that is,” he says, noting that this is the first artwork-only original Woodstock poster that he has handled. “This one might be more unusual, and that might be why there’s a higher starting bid on it.”

The poster is signed by Arnold Skolnik, the artist who designed it. Does that add to its value? “It adds several hundred dollars to the poster,” he says. “It doesn’t double the value, but it adds 20 to 30 percent. It’s difficult to say how many original Woodstock concert posters he signed. The majority of the originals have not been signed. In 2009, we sold one for $1,000, and I would expect the price to have jumped a bit since then.”

Were Woodstock posters collected at the time of the concert, or only later on? “It’s nearly always the case that they’re collected later on. That’s why the posters are so rare,” Moon says. “No one imagined they’d become collectible or valuable. They were just discarded. People who saved them were keeping them for aesthetic reasons.”

What makes this poster so successful? “It’s a simple, strong image that gets across the concept of what the festival was,” he says. “And it was a departure from the psychedelia as well. Lots of posters were trippy, intricate and complicated. This is simplistic.”

How to bid: The artwork-only original Woodstock concert poster is lot #89705 in Heritage Auctions’s Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction on June 17 and 18 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

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Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

SOLD! That Striking 1968 MoMA Poster Fetched $4,250 at Swann Galleries

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Update: The Tadanori Yokoo poster sold for $4,250.

What you see: Word Image, a poster designed by Tadanori Yokoo for a 1968 show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Swann Galleries estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.

Who is Tadanori Yokoo? He is a Japanese graphic artist and painter who has been compared to Andy Warhol and Peter Max. The 1968 MoMA exhibition poster represents one of his few American commissions. He will turn 81 in June.

What was Word and Image? “This was one of the first really major international poster shows,” says  Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries. “For us, it was a seminal exhibit, and by us, I mean the poster community.”

Why was Yokoo chosen to create the poster for this MoMA show? While stating that he is unaware of the backstory, Lowry points out, “He was an up-and-coming artist. No one was going to say, ‘Oh, you’re going with the easy standard.’ This was something new. And this was the first mainstream poster he did. In three years, he went from an unknown artist to designing the image for the first major poster retrospective in the U.S.”

What makes this poster so strong? “It works in the manner that it’s supposed to do–it catches your attention,” Lowry says. “As you walk down the street, it sinks into your head and embeds in your cortex as you pass by. The poster screams at you till you hear it with your eyes. That’s exactly what it does. It’s a great, great poster.”

What other aspects make Word Image work? “What you can’t tell is those are Day-Glo colors–bright pink, bright red, bright blue,” Lowry says. “And he is visually literalizing the name of the show–‘word’ with mouth, and ‘image’ with eye. The message speaks for itself. The only typography is the title at the top and the details at the bottom.”

How rare is this poster? It’s not rare, but it’s not common, either. Lowry says that Yokoo’s Word Image poster took off at auction only after a 1965 Yokoo poster unexpectedly pulled in $52,800 against an estimate of $6,000 to $9,000 at a Swann sale in 2013, prompting collectors and dealers to comb through their holdings for vintage Yokoos. Since then, a Word Image poster has appeared at auction at least once a year.

How to bid: Yokoo’s Word Image poster is lot 293 in Swann Galleries’s Graphic Design auction on May 25.

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Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

SOLD At Leslie Hindman Auctioneers: The Ringling Bros Joan of Arc Poster Collects $469

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Update: The Ringling Brothers Joan of Arc poster sold for $439.

What you see: A 1913 poster by Ringling Brothers, featuring Joan of Arc and promising a ‘Magnificent 1200 Character Spectacle.’ It’s from the Richard Bennett Collection of Circus Memorabilia. Leslie Hindman Auctioneers estimates the poster at $400 to $600.

Why is Joan of Arc on this Ringling Brothers poster? Where are the tigers, elephants, and clowns? “Circuses were not seen as the most classical or tasteful form of entertainment. To drum up business and legitimize the circus, the performers would parade through the streets dressed as classical Romans or knights with Joan of Arc,” says Nicholas Coombs, associate specialist at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers. “This spectacle was the first encounter the town would have with the circus, and it was a free parade down the main street.”

Why build a parade around Joan of Arc? Why would that be a draw in 1913? “Joan of Arc was a character who would have been known to a large slice of the population,” he says. “Ringling Brothers tried to appeal to as many people as possible. Joan of Arc certainly had that sort of cache among everyday, average Americans.”

What would the parade-goers have seen? “It would have been a fully-costumed production,” he says. “They probably tried to have as large a French army as possible, dressed up as knights. They tried to depict a mighty spectacle to get people to go to the circus later. They would have showed some animals as well.”

What other forms of entertainment was Ringling Brothers competing against in 1913? “It really didn’t have much competition,” Coombs says. “The circus was its own form of entertainment. A production this large, with thousands of people coming to your town–it was an event. Everyone came out to see it for miles around.”

The poster trumpets a 1200-person spectacle, but it only shows Joan of Arc and her horse. Is that unusual? “From the ones we’ve encountered, they try to sell the cast of a thousand characters aspect,” he says. “This stands out for its visual strength and its simplicity.”

How to bid: The Ringling Brothers Joan of Arc poster is lot 427 in the Documenting History: Science, Exploration sale at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers on May 4.

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Image is courtesy of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.