Grateful Dead banner art goes up for auction

The first time poster artist and architect Jan Sawka heard the Grateful Dead, he was serving time in a military prison in Wroclaw, Poland, for leading a protest against the communist regime. It was 1969, and fellow prisoners covertly tuned into an illegal broadcast of the Woodstock Festival.

Fast-forward to 1988. Sawka had settled in High Falls, N.Y., when Grateful Dead lawyer Hal Kant and his wife, Jesse, came to visit. Kant introduced himself as a sort of secret collector of Sawka’s work. Among the Sawka pieces he owned: a folio of 25 hand-colored and hand-printed dry point engravings titled “A Book of Fiction” and a life-size, working telephone booth covered in writings on experiences and conversations that took place inside. (When visiting the Kant home, Jerry Garcia frequently placed calls from that phone booth.)

Kant had a commission for Sawka: Design 52 banners for the Grateful Dead’s 25th anniversary tour in 1989. The individual banners eventually morphed into a 10-story-high sequence of radiant, multicolored images of landscapes, the sun and the heavens.

Kant died in 2008, and now eight of those banners, plus other artworks by Sawka, Lucian Freud, Jerry Garcia and Richard Stein will be sold in a Dec. 9 online auction of the Kants’ collection.

“Many people aren’t aware that both Garcia and Kant had a lifelong interest in the fine arts,” said Hanna Sawka, daughter of Jan, who died in 2012. “Kant loved the opera, collected Lucian Freud and acquired a Francis Bacon triptych before it was hot.”

Online bidding for the Kant collection started at 7 a.m. Wednesday 11/22, and the auction closes at 10 a.m. Dec. 9. It’s being run by Stremmel Auctions, www.stremmelauctions.com

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