A rare piece of Canadian military history has been sold to an American collector for a record price, after a New York auction Thursday.
The buyer paid $11,875 USD for the poster, according to Nicholas Lowry, the president of Swann Auction Galleries. The company’s August sale of vintage military propaganda took place virtually, due to COVID.
“This poster really is an important and rare piece of historical, World War I Canadian Judaica,” Lowry told The CJN. “There are any number of reasons why it might have sold as high as it did.”
Higher price than Yiddish version
No one kept track of how many hundreds or thousands of these posters may have been printed by the Montreal Litho Company, according to Lowry, who is one of the expert appraisers on the Antiques Roadshow on PBS. He sports a trademark curly moustache and tartan suits.
The high price paid this time tops the sale price for a Yiddish version of this poster, which Lowry also sold in 2018 at auction, for $9,375 USD. That time, the poster was purchased by an institution, although Swann Galleries would not reveal the identity for confidentiality reasons.
“This is only the seventh time we have come across this poster in 25 years, which is incredibly rare,” Lowry said, adding that this new poster came from the estate of a deceased New York City collector.
“This poster was one of 40 or 50 that we have in the auction that came from this office in Manhattan, and all he wanted to do was generate conversation among his clients when they came in,” Lowry said. “The client was not Jewish, but was very aware of the significance and the historical importance of the poster.”
Propaganda poster aimed at Jews
The recruiting poster shows three high profile British Jewish leaders surrounded by the Union Jack flag, urging British subjects in Canada to join up for overseas service.
“Britain expects every son of Israel to do his duty,” the poster urges, while showing a soldier cutting the ropes and freeing a Jewish prisoner. A speech bubble from the prisoner’s mouth was likely designed to persuade others to show gratitude and loyalty to Britain for giving Jewish people a safe place to live, and also granting Canadian Jews full civil rights in the mid-19th century.
“You have cut my bonds and set me free, now let me help you set others free.”
Jewish community served in WW1
The Jewish Reinforcement Draft Company was formed in the summer of 1916 in Montreal under Capt. Isidore Freedman, a well-to-do Montreal diamond merchant. Freedman held regular recruitment meetings at company headquarters on St. Lawrence Boulevard. He hoped to attract 300 men to enlist. By March of 1917, approximately 85 officers and men set sail for England to join the battle against the Germans.
However, historians say the Jewish soldiers never got the chance to fight as a single company: the Canadian army quickly split up the Jewish unit, and the men were dispersed into other Quebec-based regiments of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
A plaque with a photo of the company from 1917 is in the archives of the Jewish Public Library in Montreal. The accompanying text explains that several of the Jewish community’s leading members joined Freedman’s company, including his younger brother Albert Freedman. Capt. Herbert Vineberg, who won an Air Force Cross in 1919, also joined.
Lt. Alexander Solomon, originally from London, England, joined up after moving to Montreal. He was killed in France on August 15, 1917 in the Battle for Hill 70, a few months after the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
In all, approximately 4,700 Canadian Jews served in the First World War. Their story can be found in Northern Lights, the recent 60th anniversary book from The CJN.
Few posters found in Canada
While this poster was for the all-Canadian Jewish military unit, there was also another Jewish Legion formed during the Great War. The latter group included Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who spent time near Windsor, Nova Scotia undergoing basic training there before sailing to England. There were five battalions of Jewish Legionnaires fighting as part of the British Forces, including in Palestine.
Ahead of Thursday’s auction, Canadian Jewish historians and archivists were buzzing about the rare poster, although none interviewed by The CJN revealed plans to bid on it in an effort to return it to Canadian soil.
The Library and Archives Canada does not have this poster, but officials declined to reveal whether there were plans to bid on it. The Ontario Jewish Archives has a copy of the poster, and they also did not plan to participate in the New York auction.
The Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives already has copies of both the English and Yiddish posters, carefully preserved in their Montreal vault.
“Good thing it’s a lockable room, given that value,” wrote Janice Rosen, the curator, in an email, after learning of the price paid for the poster at Thursday’s auction.
Other Canadian venues that possess a copy of the poster include the former Jewish Military Museum of Canada, in Toronto (Yiddish version), and the McCord Museum in Montreal.
Toronto man’s poster bought for $25
A copy of the English poster also hangs in the kitchen of Toronto financial advisor Steven Kelman. He reached out to The CJN after the podcast episode about the poster.
Kelman paid a fraction of the record price for his own framed poster, which he picked up during a Jewish men’s club meeting several years ago at a Toronto synagogue.
“I paid $25 because no one was willing to pay more and I may have been the only bidder,” Kelman recalled. “I almost certainly could have bought it for less but it was for a charity and I did not want to insult the donor.”
Auction house seeks designer’s name
Auctioneer Nicholas Lowry explained that he was able to sell the poster for a world record price because it was in excellent condition, and also due to its significance as Judaica, which he said always carries a premium in North America.
“From what I understand, very little is spoken about Jewish involvement in the war. And this prominently places Jews… within history to be shown as being so involved in the war,” he said.
He would not reveal the identity of the new owner, and did not know whether the poster was being kept or might be eventually donated to an institution. Even though the poster will no longer be in his hands, Lowry is hoping to learn the mystery of who originally designed the poster, as it does not come with a signature. He also would like to know the exact timing of when it was published.
“In my world, these are the kind of geeky details that get us so excited and keep us up at night,” he said. “I would love to know if anybody knows and can share… to more accurately date this poster. That would just be fantastic!”
Watch Nicholas Lowry’s interview before the auction:
Steven Kelman feels the poster could not have been printed before 1916 as one of the three British Jewish politicians shown on it, Viscount Reading (Sir Rufus Isaacs), was not appointed by King George the 5th until July 3, 1916.
Historian David Matlow, who contributes his Treasure Trove column regularly to The CJN, said the other two prominent Jews on the poster are Edwin S. Montagu and Sir Herbert Samuel. Samuel was appointed as the first High Commissioner of Palestine in 1920.
“I guess that is a fourth persuasive technique, showing Jewish people in positions of authority in the British government,” suggested Matlow, who revealed he was not going to bid at the auction, either. The poster is considered propaganda because it is “asking Canadian Jews to either follow their example of service, or to recognize the opportunities available to Jews in the Commonwealth that we have the responsibility to defend.”