Original ‘Keep Calm’ Posters Set to Sell for Thousands at Auction

Three of the original ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters going on sale at auction in early July are expected raise more than £6000.

Jun 18, 2024By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

keep calm and carry on

 

Now a ubiquitous symbol of wartime propaganda adorning posters, mugs, tea towels and more, the ‘keep calm and carry on’ slogan has become a firm fixture in British culture. Only a handful of the posters were actually printed following the outbreak of World War II, and many of them were destroyed, making the few that remain all the more valuable and sought after. Three of these original posters in different sizes are coming up for auction with Anderson and Garland, an auctioneer based in Newcastle in the United Kingdom on the 4th of July. Estimates suggest they will sell for between £1,200 ($1522) and £3,000 ($3805) each.

 

Fred Wyrley-Birch, director for Anderson and Garland says the posters, “… encapsulate a pivotal moment in British history and stand as an inspiring message from the past.”

 

Wartime Propaganda

The accompanying wartime propaganda produced in 1939. Source: Barter Books

 

The famed ‘keep calm’ poster was part of a series produced by the UK’s Ministry of Information in 1939, along with two other posters featuring similar, inspirational slogans aimed at keeping up the public’s moral during the most challenging of times. The other posters read “your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory,” and “freedom is in peril / Defend it with all your might.” However, of the three, the ‘keep calm’ poster series never officially made its way into the public eye during the war. Instead, the British government kept it in reserve in case of German air attacks.

 

Stuart Manley of Barter Books with a ‘keep calm’ poster. Source: The Canberra Times

 

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After the war the poster fell into obscurity. It became widespread and popular many years later, after being sold in Barter Books in Alnwick, UK, in the early aughts. The poster’s popularity hit a record high in 2008 during the 2007-8 credit crisis, and reached the United States and beyond during the Great Recession of 2008-9. Today it has become as much a parody of the British ‘stiff upper lip’ as a symbol of what writer Owen Hatherley calls “austerity nostalgia” in his book The Ministry of Nostalgia (2016). He describes this as a phenomenon in which “our past is being resold in order to defend the indefensible.”

 

Previous Auctions

An original copy of the wartime poster. Source: historiek

 

Around 2.45 million posters featuring the ‘keep calm’ slogan were printed during the war, but most of them were pulped and recycled in 1940 in order to aid the British raw material shortage crisis during a period of extreme austerity. This means only a small number of the first posters still exist today, and they tend to reach significant prices when they do rarely come up for sale at auction. In 2016 the Olympia Art Fair in London sold a copy of the poster for £21,250 ($28,700), while in 2023 RR Auctions in New Hampshire sold another for $11,000; further international auction results prove that the poster is equally as well-known and sought after around the world as it is in the UK.

 

Different Sizes

A smaller keep calm poster on sale. Source: The History Blog

 

Approximately 11 different sizes of the ‘keep calm’ posters were printed in 1939, from the smallest at 15 x 10 inches, to the full 48 sheet 20 x 30 feet. Three different sizes of the poster will come up for auction at Anderson and Garland next month, with the smallest expected to sell for £1,200 ($1522), the middle at £2,000 ($2536), and the biggest for around £3,000 ($3805). This trio of posters formerly belonged to a police officer based in Suffolk at the end of World War II. Wyrley-Birch says this auction in July is a rare opportunity for the budding collector, given it is the first time ever that a “complete set” of three originals will go on sale together.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.