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Las Vegas man wins battle to reclaim father’s poster collection

Peter Sachs’ father, Hans, went to his grave wondering whether the Nazis had destroyed the renowned poster collection he’d devoted his life to building.

Imagine, then, how Peter felt when – 67 years after his father’s collection was seized – he discovered that 4,344 posters had not only survived the Nazis, but the Soviets and the East Germans.

Sachs waged a seven-year legal battle in German courts to reclaim his father’s legacy from a Berlin museum.

And even after he won his case, German authorities attempted to stop the shipment of the pre-World War II collection to the United States.

The collection arrived in New York – the same day as Hurricane Sandy. The posters rode out the storm in a warehouse.

This weekend, however, the legendary Hans Sachs Posters Collection finally returns to the public eye – at the first of three New York City auctions.

"Unfortunately, I do not have the ability to keep or store over 4,000 posters," acknowledges Peter Sachs, 75, a retired US Airways pilot who’s lived in northwest Las Vegas for almost two years.

Sachs is keeping some of his father’s posters – including some by artist Lucian Bernard, a friend of his father’s.

Sachs also anticipates "donating several hundred posters to worthy institutions," he notes.

"My father always wanted the posters to be seen by the public and the posters have been locked away from public view since 1938," Sachs says. "The museum that had them rarely displayed them and I am hoping that many of the posters will end up in museums or with collectors who have a greater ability to display them than I do."

More than 1,200 posters were featured in this weekend’s auction, which concludes today. Two additional auctions will take place later this year, according to Arlan Ettinger , president of the New York auction house Guernsey’s, who’s serving as principal auctioneer this weekend.

All told, between 3,700 and 3,800 posters will be auctioned, Ettinger says, representing the work of more than a thousand artists, from such poster specialists as Alphonse Mucha, Jules Cheret and James Montgomery Flagg (creator of the Uncle Sam "I Want You" poster) to renowned painters including Gustav Klimt .

Some posters have an estimated worth of $40,000 to $50,000, Ettinger says, but most "are probably worth $1,500 to $2,000." Overall, the collection’s value is estimated at about $10 million.

A German Jewish dentist whose patients included members of Albert Einstein’s family, Hans Sachs "began collecting posters as a young man and it became his life’s passion," his son remembers.

In 1896, a classmate showed him some posters he had "helped himself to … in the waiting rooms of railway stations," Hans Sachs wrote in a 1953 memoir included in the auction catalog, titled "The World’s Largest Poster Collection 1896-1938: How it came about and … disappeared from the Face of the Earth."

His friend’s example inspired Hans Sachs to start his own collection, which grew to 12,000 posters and 18,000 smaller graphics.

In 1910, Sachs created a poster collecting society and a year later founded an "internationally popular" magazine devoted to poster collecting, Ettinger says. He also "invented a sophisticated method of storing the posters."

Sachs’ collection includes posters on everything from entertainment to travel, along with advertisements for such products as bicycles, automobiles, candy and cigarettes.

Some posters reflect the changing times, from World War I to the politically charged climate of 1930s Germany, when the Nazis came to power.

The extreme political situation hit home for the Sachs family in 1938, when Hans Sachs, arrested for possessing Nazi propaganda posters, was briefly imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp before his wife secured his release, Peter Sachs recalls.

Sachs, his wife and Peter, then a year old, fled Germany shortly after Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") – Nov. 9, 1938, when a wave of Nazi attacks against Germany’s Jews destroyed thousands of synagogues, Jewish-owned businesses and homes, killing more than 90; 30,000 more were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

After leaving Germany, the Sachs family traveled to Britain, then to the United States, where Hans Sachs worked as a bookkeeper in the New York studio of his artist friend Lucian Bernard – until he moved to Boston for graduate training at Harvard University. He then returned to New York to establish a dental practice.

Following World War II, Hans Sachs "made inquiries about the collection and was advised by the East German authorities that the collection had been destroyed," according to Peter Sachs.

But that wasn’t quite the case.

After World War II, Soviet and then East German officials took control of the collection, which was housed in an East Berlin museum; for "60 or 70 years," the posters were "sort of underground," literally and figuratively.

Despite the claim that the posters had been destroyed, "some of the posters were sold clandestinely to raise money," identified as "posters from the famous Hans Sachs collection," the auctioneer explains. "Everyone thought, ‘How is this possible? Everyone knows the collection was destroyed.’ "

In 1966, Hans Sachs himself wrote to a German poster expert, curator of the East Berlin museum where the posters surfaced, asking whether some portion of the collection could be exhibited in the West.

But "Cold War politics prevailed and Dr. Sachs passed away in 1974, never again laying eyes on his beloved collection," according to the auction catalog.

In 2005, Peter Sachs began researching the posters’ whereabouts on the Internet – and found them at the Berlin museum, which "proudly advertised the fact that they had the ‘Hans Sachs Poster Collection,’ " Sachs explains.

Because "this collection meant the world to my father" – and because "he almost lost his life over this collection" – Sachs "felt that I owed it to him to try and reclaim what had been stolen from him."

Although "many countries have committed to returning Nazi-era looted art," he adds, "in practice – as I have learned the hard way – it is often an uphill battle."

Peter Sachs’ "uphill battle" began with a 2007 hearing before an advisory commission set up by the German government "to hear cases such as mine," he notes.

But the return-and-restitution panel recommended that the Berlin museum should keep the posters, "based on the absurd claim that my father would have wanted the museum to keep the collection," Sachs says.

Believing "this rationale was obscene in light of everything that happened and everything I knew about my father," Sachs "decided to pursue the case in the courts in Germany."

Finally, Germany’s High Court for Justice "ruled that my father had never lost legal title to the collection," Sachs explains, "and that to allow the museum to keep the posters would be to continue to perpetrate an injustice carried out by the Nazi regime."

Even that ruling, however, didn’t end the dispute.

In the early 1960s, still believing his posters had been destroyed, Hans Sachs accepted a $50,000 payment from the West German government as compensation for his lost collection.

That figure was "a woefully small amount, even back then," Ettinger says, "but it was better than nothing."

Museum officials considered the payment "tantamount to (Hans Sachs) selling the collection," Ettinger says, but "if he had not been arrested and the collection hadn’t been stolen from him," the museum would never have obtained it, he contends. "Essentially, they lied to him."

Peter Sachs planned to "repay the compensation" his father received in the early ’60s if the posters were returned to him.

Instead, "for reasons I don’t understand," Sachs says, "the German finance ministry decided to circumvent this process and demand that I (re)pay the money immediately."

Even as Hans Sachs’ posters were being crated for at-long-last shipment to the United States, German customs officials arrived at the Berlin museum, threatening "to seize the collection if the compensation amount was not repaid immediately," Peter Sachs says. "My lawyers tell me that the current director of the museum stepped forward and the museum repaid the amount demanded by the German finance ministry so that the posters would not be seized again!"

Little wonder, then, that Peter Sachs admits to "mixed emotions" now that the posters are being auctioned – and once again being seen, as his father always dreamed.

"This was a long battle and there were some low moments along the way," he reflects. "I’m hopeful that the world will now get a chance to see and enjoy my father’s life’s work. But I’m also sort of sad at the way it all had to play out."

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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