Keep calm and keep consigning Second World War posters

Keep Calm and Carry On poster sold by Onslows for £15,000.
Keep Calm and Carry On poster sold by Onslows for £15,000.

SUCCESS begets success, as the saying goes, and this is certainly true for auction houses when it comes to securing tasty consignments.

The now ubiquitous and instantly familiar Keep Calm and Carry On poster from the Second World War is rare but is actually surfacing in increasing numbers thanks to the soaring prices they are making at auction.

For salerooms reaping such rewards, it also encourages similar consignments from vendors keen to seize the moment.

A Keep Calm… poster sold at Onslows is a perfect example. Not only did it make a significant price but it has also helped to uncover a stash of wonderful Second World War designs for sale. The original poster with red background with white lettering and crown,  printed 1939, 2ft 6in x 20in (76 x 51cm), was estimated at £5000-7000 in their December 19 auction but made £15,000 (plus 21.6% buyer’s premium and VAT), selling to a commission bid.

It was from a private Second World War collection which was dispersed last year. The buyer is British but based in the UAE.

Patrick Bogue of Onslows believes this is a record price for a Second World War propaganda poster at auction (using the £18,240 buyer’s premium-inclusive price). He adds: “This poster has now become one of the most famous propaganda icons of the war, and the irony is that the poster was never displayed in public.

“ In September 1939 Keep Calm… and two other letterpress posters had been put into production, Freedom is in Peril… and Your Courage…

British Second World War poster on offer at Onslows in July.
British Second World War poster on offer at Onslows in July.

were displayed in public places, but the third now recognised the world over with the unforgettable slogan was not.

“It is now widely accepted that it was held back in anticipation of an invasion of Britain by the enemy or a severe air raid. The Phoney War  from September 1939 to May 1940 proved to be largely uneventful for the Home Front and the poster was never used.

“A change in the attitude to the wording probably contributed to the poster never being used.  Although many thousands in several sizes were printed, only a few examples have appeared for sale. This example is in the larger double crown format, of which – according to HMSO records – 496,500 were printed.”

Patrick says several versions of this poster have appeared at auction at Swann in New York,  Bonhams (London and NY) and Christie’s South Kensington between September 2012 and this January. Prices including premium ranged from £7500 to £18098 in NY. It has appeared in the Crown Folio 15 x10in  (38 x 25.5cm) format three times, in the Double Royal 2ft 6in x 20in (76 x 51cm) format three times – including the one Onslows sold – and a large 3ft 3in x 5ft (1 x 1.5m) format.

Prior to 2012 Patrick can find no record of the poster being sold at auction in recent years, although he adds that Onslows may well have sold a copy in the 1980s for less than £100. He does say that he saw another Keep Calm… poster for sale at the recent Works on Paper Fair at the Science Museum , in the same size as the one Onslows just sold, priced at £30,000.

Fresh from that result, the other collection of British Second World War posters that emerged will be offered sometime this July by Onslows. Patrick says:  “It was found by the vendor in an elderly relative’s house. They were all folded and stored with apples in a chest of drawers. Some have apple juice staining, but most are in near perfect condition.”

A rare group of wartime road safety posters by Fougasse (Cyril Kenneth Bird) and a set of his Careless Talk Cost Lives posters are among the selection. These popular designs are also highly recognisable.

BLOG Onslows WW2 poster 2
British Second World War poster on offer at Onslows in July.

Bird (1887-1965) served in the Royal Engineers during the First World War and later became editor of Punch. He began drawing cartoons after serious injuries from a shell at Gallipoli meant he was invalided out of the Forces. His nickname comes from a small landmine of unpredictable performance.