Rare Wright Brothers Posters Survive Because They’re “So Damn Pretty”

Remarkable Wright brothers posters come up for auction

This rare poster from 1909 is expected to fetch between $15,000 and $20,000
This rare poster from 1909 is expected to fetch between $15,000 and $20,000

Things were going well for the Wright brothers in early 1909, following their first public flights in America and Europe. The U.S. Congress, the Smithsonian Institution and the Aero Club of America all wanted to award them medals, to be presented at the “Wright Brothers’ Home Day Celebration” in Dayton, Ohio, on June 17-18.

The Wrights, though, wanted none of it.

The inventors found the festivities a waste of time, writes Tom Crouch in his 1989 book The Bishop’s Boys. “The Dayton presentation has been made the excuse for an elaborate carnival and advertisement of the city under the guise of being an honor to us,” Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute on June 6. “As it was done against our known wishes, we are not as appreciative as we might be.”

“The great carnival,” writes Crouch, “included receptions, spectacular parades, band concerts, and fireworks featuring pyrotechnic portraits of Wilbur and Orville, intertwined with the flag, eight feet tall…. A gigantic ‘living flag,’ composed of schoolchildren dressed in red, white, and blue, topped off the festivities with a serenade.” The event concluded with an automobile parade.

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Lot 68, by artist Hans Rudi Erdt, is expected to bring between $12,000 and $18,000. Image courtesy Swann Auction Galleries.

Now, a rare poster from this event will be auctioned October 18, 2013 at New York’s Swann Galleries. “They’re old, and they were meant to be ephemeral,” says Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Auction Galleries, and a frequent contributor to PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, of the three Wright brothers posters in the auction. “The only reason people kept them is they were so damn pretty.”

The Dayton poster isn’t by a known artist. “So as a work of art,” says Lowry, “it has less interest, but as a seminal event in American aviation history it it is hugely important.”

The poster at right, by artist Hans Rudi Erdt, advertises Orville Wright’s flights over Tempelhof Field in Germany.  In the summer and fall of 1909, Orville made 19 demonstration flights to promote the brothers’ aircraft, which was being manufactured in Germany. “Keep in mind,” says Lowry, “the German poster is over four feet high. It’s actually so big it’s printed on two pieces of paper. It’s joined in the middle. You can see the seam right below the lower wing. To keep something that big, for so long, that’s impressive. And a little crazy. Poster people—there’s a beautiful kind of mania that’s involved in .”

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This extremely rare poster is expected to bring between $10,000 and $15,000. Image courtesy Swann Auction Galleries.

The third and final poster up for auction is the rarest of all. By René Hermann-Paul, the drawing depicts a Wright brothers’ airplane flying at the Aérodrome de Cannes in early 1909. It was flown by Count Charles graaf de Lambert, who was trained by Wilbur Wright and was the eighth person in France to obtain a pilot’s license. The Wright biplane featured in the poster was constructed by Ariel, the exclusive producer of the Wright brothers aircraft in France. The poster has come up for sale only once before that Lowry can recall. “Hermann-Paul was a very famous artist at the time,” Lowry says. “He mostly did music hall stuff, so this is very atypical for him.” Hermann-Paul must have been interested in aviation; one of his other works is a portrait of Wilbur Wright.

Do other Wright brothers posters exist? Lowry thinks for a second, then replies, “Actually, off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other ones.” The Dayton poster actually came to Antiques Roadshow in 2009; watch Lowry’s appraisal here.