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SKIING HISTORY

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Bimonthly journal and official publication of the International Skiing History Association (ISHA)

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Skiing History (USPS No. 16-201, ISSN: 23293659) is published bimonthly by the International Skiing History Association, P.O. Box 1064, Manchester Center, VT 05255.
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By Everett Potter

For the first time, Swann’s annual vintage ski poster auction featured only remote bidding. No matter. Prices and spirits were high. 

Above: “Zermatt,” by Swiss artist Emil Cardinaux, led off the 2021 Swann auction. The rare 1908 poster combines the majestic Matterhorn and the Art Nouveau style of its times. All images courtesy Swann Galleries.


With the 1920 “Palace Hotel,” Cardinaux
focused on telling a narrative about the
Palace’s bored patrons, rather than
depicting the hotel itself—an innovative,
narrative approach to promotional travel
posters.

Early Swiss masterpieces and classic American and Canadian designs were standouts at the annual sale of vintage ski and winter posters at Swann Auction Galleries in New York City in February. It was a live auction, though accommodations were made due to the ongoing pandemic. Bidders made their offers via web or phone.

Precautions aside, the bidding for the 49 lots on offer was as lively as usual, and led by Nicholas Lowry, president, principal auctioneer, and director of the poster department at Swann. Lowry is a familiar figure from PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, where his role as a poster expert is buttressed by his trademark three-piece checked suits, carnival barker mustache and baritone. Particularly passionate about ski posters, he has an uncanny recollection of an individual poster’s history at auction.

Directed by Lowry, it was Swann Galleries, along with Christie’s East in London, that primarily drove the resurgence in the popularity of vintage ski and travel posters in the early 2000s. The best posters combine sports, fashion, exotic destinations and compelling graphics, a powerful combination. Art insiders note that the Boomer generation, in particular, has an affinity for vintage ski posters, reflected in appreciating sale prices.

“Zermatt Matterhorn 4505m Schweiz,” a 1908 poster by the great Swiss artist Emil Cardinaux, kicked off the auction. Described by Lowry as “an extraordinary image,” the poster is a dramatic depiction of the Matterhorn at dawn, shining bright over the still slumbering ski resort below. Of the many Matterhorn posters, this Art Nouveau image may well be the most iconic and consequently, the most in demand by collectors. Lowry noted that this poster adapts the style of the German Sachsplakat (Object Poster) from before the First World War, and presages the Swiss Realism of the early 1920s, a game changer for poster design.

“It’s a rare poster,” Lowry added, “but still, we have had it four times since 2014. It’s also really early, from 1908, and it’s a travel brochure really, selling the Matterhorn.” With a price estimated at $7,000 to $10,000, it sold for $13,750 (including the buyer’s premium, which is 25% of the hammer price).


Looking to escape city soot and smog?
This circa-1935 poster suggests
Adelboden.

A classic of the ski-hotel genre followed, also by Emil Cardinaux, with the “Palace Hotel, St. Moritz.” This 1920 poster depicts an ice skater on frozen Lake St. Moritz and a few bystanders on the sidelines. There’s no image of Badrutt’s Palace Hotel itself, just a few examples of the beau monde in striking 1920’s fashions who are guests of this five-star property.

“This is very painterly and it depicts the idle rich bored out of their minds,” Lowry observed. “It’s grade A ennui. None of the main subjects are paying attention to the winter sport happening around them. There’s storytelling going on there and a lot of subliminal messaging,” he noted about the poster, which sold for $9,375, just shy of its estimate of $10,000.

Lowry singled out a rarity by the great Swiss graphic artist Martin Peikert. Titled “Sonniges Adelboden,” or Sunny Adelboden, it shows a brilliant view of the snowcovered Alps as if in a dreamy cloud, emerging from a grim background of factories, apartments and smokestacks, perhaps in Berlin or Hamburg, where this poster would have been seen at a tram stop. Estimated at $500 to $750, it went for $875. “It’s a very posterly poster,” said Lowry. “You’ve got the smog in the crowded city, smokestacks belching smoke, but it clears onto this glorious alpine vista.”


1932 Art Deco poster hits all the high
points: fashion, skiing, a fancy hotel.

Sometimes, it’s not the resort that makes a poster desirable but the image itself. That was the case with lot 177, an Art Deco poster from 1932 by Mariette Chauffard-Hugues. Entitled “Le Markstein,” it was for a small family resort in the Vosges Mountains of France. With an estimate of $1,000 to $1,500, it sold for $1,063. Lowry described this image as “everything you could want in a ski poster. You’ve got fashion, a sexy lady, skis and a ski hotel in the background. It’s been 11 years since we’ve had it at auction. It checks all the boxes of what a ski poster should be.”


Artist Peter Ewart sells the rush of the sport.

North American posters also made a strong showing at the sale. A 1950’s poster by Canadian artist Peter Ewart drew praise from Lowry, who declared “This is so rare. He did a lot of ski posters and we’ve had a bunch of his other works. But it’s been 17 years since we had this one, an entire generation if you think about it. This is all about the action, all about the sport.” “Canadian Rockies,” for Banff-Lake Louise, went for $4,250, above its $3,000 estimate.

Image and artist, of course, are paramount in estimating the value—or desirability—of a poster. But the historical context of the piece also comes into play. “Sun Valley, Idaho” by Augustus Moser, a circa 1936 poster with the emblem of the Union Pacific Railroad on it, was estimated at $6,000 to $9,000 and sold for $8,125. “One reason it had such a high estimate is that it’s a great image,” Lowry said. “It also is a very early piece in the history of Sun Valley, published the winter that it opened.”


Published in 1936, the year the resort
opened, this poster commanded one
of the day's top prices.

Moser was an interesting choice for marketing an American resort, Lowry noted. A native of Salzburg, Austria, he may never have laid eyes on Sun Valley. Resort founder, and Union Pacific Railroad Chairman, Averell Harriman liked to hire Austrians, from Count Felix Schaffgotsch, who scouted the resort’s location, to Sun Valley’s original six ski instructors.


A cinematic image in 1938.

A classic of the ski manufacturers line of ski posters was one for “Northland Skis/ Internationally Famous” by an artist known only as Krämer, circa 1938. Estimated at $800 to $1,200, it sold for $1,875. A strong image of a smiling man standing on a pair of wooden Northland skis, it is “not valuable, not famous and from a graphic point of view, is oddly un-copied,” Lowry noted. “Yet it has a remarkable cinematic viewpoint, with the viewer looking up and catching the Northland imprint under the tip of each ski, as well as depicting the skier.”

Then there’s Lou Hechenberger’s famous “New Hampshire” poster, showing a skier in a peaked visor cap skiing at an angle. Anyone who knows New Hampshire skiing will recognize the half-moon dip behind him as the lip of Tuckerman Ravine on Mt. Washington, which also explains the sun visor. (Tuckerman in springtime is notorious for its glaring sun.) Rendered in blocks of color with no facial detail, it’s a powerful image and sold for $3,500, above its $3,000 top estimate.

Lowry’s personal favorite in the sale was Sascha Maurer’s “Ski at Lake Placid” from 1938. Maurer was a German-born artist best known for his work for the New Haven Railroad, New England ski resorts and ski manufacturers. In fact, there were three other Maurer posters in this sale, one for Stowe and two for the New Haven Railroad, including a 1937 classic of woman in a striped gaiter.


This 1938 poster used design elements
in place of type.

Those stripes echo the ski tracks behind her, foreshadowing this Lake Placid design of three skiers descending a steep slope and improbably spelling out the word “ski” with their tracks. It is what Lowry referred to as “the well source of so many other great images about skiing. As far as I know, this was the first time something so simple and so obvious was done, of using design elements and spelling in the snow. It’s simple, pure genius and dynamic. This is hyper well-designed. It’s the Citizen Kane of ski posters, doing first what later became commonplace.” It sold for $4,750, well above its high estimate of $3,500.


Ascot stripes echo the railroad tracks.

Lowry also made a point of calling out “Ski Big Bromley/3 Lifts/ Manchester, Vermont,” circa 1939, by an unknown artist. “It’s a tiny piece, a counter card with a cardboard stand on the back that would have been used in a travel agency,” he said of this mini-poster, which sold for $438, just above its $400 low estimate. “I like it because in 1939 using photomontage, which was very much a European style, was a very progressive way to advertise an American resort.”

Besides, “I’m especially fond of this,” he added, “because I used to ski there as a kid.” 

Everett Potter, a travel columnist for Forbes and the editor of Everett Potter’s Travel Report, is a long- time contributor to Skiing History, and a collector of vintage ski posters. Visit swanngalleries.com for information on upcoming auctions.

 

 

 

 

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