LENOX HILL — Thousands of rare posters that were stolen by Nazis more than 70 years ago will be auctioned next month to benefit the family of the Jewish man who originally owned them.
Hans Sachs, who was passionate about graphic design, began collecting posters in late 19th-century Germany, and over the next several decades he amassed nearly 12,500 of them, according to Guernsey's auction house.
His hobby came to a violent end on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938, when Nazis arrested Sachs along with thousands of other Jews and took him to a concentration camp, snapping up the art he was forced to leave behind, the auction house said.
Sachs later escaped the camp and took refuge in the United States with his family, but everyone assumed the poster collection was long lost — until five years ago, when Sachs's elderly son discovered that about 4,000 pieces were hidden in a German museum's vault.
Sachs's son successfully sued to get them back. And now, many of those 4,000 posters will be up for auction Jan. 18 at Guernsey's, on East 73rd Street.
The posters were created by nearly 1,000 artists from around the world, and many are thought to be the last remaining example of a particular print or practitioner's work, said Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's.
The entire collection is worth about $20 million, Ettinger said.
Examples include the "Tournee Du Chat Noir" print by Theophile Steinlen, as well as a roughly drawn ad for an Edward Munch exhibition.
In another poster, a leggy can-can dancer calls passersby into a cabaret. And in yet another, death leers behind a topless woman who is selling antiseptic.
The styles range from figurative to realistic, and the color schemes include stark black-white-red palates as well as nuanced, watercolor tones.
What surprises Ettinger most is that the posters survived at all, since they were not produced for the long term.
"When posters were created, they were set up to promote a performance," he said. "They were only meant to last a few weeks."
Fifty of the rare pieces were on display Tuesday, Dec. 19 at Arader Galleries on Madison Avenue.
Cultural institutions such as museums — as well as private collectors — still could come forward and purchase all the posters before they get sold off individually, Ettinger said.
"It is the best poster collection in the world, by far," he said. "You have extraordinary quality combined with extraordinary history."