Martijn F. Le Coultre, a Dutch notary who is among the leading poster collectors in his native Holland and the world, started collecting posters over 35 years ago because, he says, “I just fell in love with them.” His focus went towards posters with a cultural or historic impact. He realized that product posters tell the story of the consumption of the masses and with that the story of the Twentieth Century. Political posters tell the other side of the story of war, peace and protest movements. The largest part of his collection, many thousands, he donated to the ReclameArsenaal Foundation in Amsterdam. That collection is now accessible online here, where he is on the board. He is also involved with the PosterMuseumin the Netherlands that recently published a book about legendary collector Hans Sachs, the editor of Das Plakat, and his collection. firstname.lastname@example.org.
On October 2, 2013, part of Le Coultre’s collection will be auctioned at Christie’s in South Kensington, London. “Graphic Masterworks: A Century of Design” includes seminal posters from 1894 to 1988, including examples of De Stijl, Bauhaus, Constructivism and Expressionism. A showing of these gems continues until the auction at Christie’s South Kensington.
I asked Le Coultre, whose book A Century of Posters (with Alston W. Purvis) is a must have, about the scope of the collection, his reasons for collecting and the lessons learned from the collection.
Being a collector myself, I know there is an endpoint when interest, even passion, for a collection wains — when there is no more to uncover. Has this happened to you?
I still find posters that I can not resist. There are also posters that suddenly pop up out of nowhere that are of breathtaking beauty or significance. Just last week I bought a German WW I propaganda poster showing the channel tunnel. That tunnel was not completed until 1994 but the poster dates from 1914 or ’15. A beautiful example of poster propaganda twisting reality.
What have you learned from your collection?
Posters illustrate the cultural, economic, historic and political developments of their era, roughly starting in 1880 and up to the present. There is absolutely nothing new in the way people try to convince others to buy products, to go places or to vote for politicians. When you start seeing the pattern you can not be fooled any longer.
What percentage of your collection is on Christie’s block?
In numbers — only very few, but in importance — a big chunk. The posters offered were selected to show a cross section of design. I particularly like Cassandre, but it would not have been right to put more in than the three that are on offer.
Where have you stored the works?
I had most of the collection at home. An old house with a thatched roof. Everything would have been lost if that roof had got on fire. So that helped me making the decision to sell.
You have many of the “masterpieces” of poster history. Has there been a “method” to your collecting?
Starting when I was still in high school I made all the mistakes of a novice collector. I learned, however, quickly to decide for myself what to like and what to collect. I was lucky in this way that in the old days I had not many competitors. The whole of Holland counted two active collectors.
It is interesting to see the values placed on the works. Many are in the five figures (Euro). How is such value determined?
Some of these prices are well established as the posters from time to time come on the market. Others are so rare that the estimates are no more than an educated guess, based on what other works of art of that quality could bring. A painting by Klimt could command a price of millions of dollars. Shouldn’t a rare poster by the same artist not bring at least a percent of that?
A collection of your magnitude is a burden at times and hard to maintain. Did you offer your collection to a museum?
I would have liked to see the collection end up in a museum. Maybe an institution or enthusiastic donor will step forward. It is not to late for that.
What is next in your collecting/scholarly future?
I am doing research for an article on El Lissitzky and his 1922 cover for the Dutch art magazine WENDINGEN. Besides that I am currently also president of the Dooyewaard Foundation in Blaricum, the Netherlands. This foundation is the owner of several artists studio’s including one from about 1905 that during the crucial summer of 1917 was used by Piet Mondrian. Art historians presumed this studio (a wooden shed) to have been demolished in the 1920’s to make way for a private villa but it recently turned out to have been moved from its original spot to another place in Blaricum. It is in remarkable authentic condition. The Dooyewaard Foundation recently acquired it, thus saving it from near certain destruction.
The Foundation is working on a project to restore this studio as well as others from that period to make these studios available for artists in residence again. This artist colony could than become part of an international chain.
As president of the Dooyewaard Foundation as well as of the Dutch Poster Museum, I had to make a decision on how to divide my spare time between those two institutions. So the sale at Christie’s is a logical step from posters towards more involvement with the project of the artists studios.