Scrap Metal for Japan - Lithograph Illustrates Sliver of History

Q.   Enclosed is a picture of a black and white scene of a cargo boat at a dock. The title “Old Iron for Japan 36” and a signature are written in pencil.  On the front is a plaque reading “Federal Arts Project” I cannot read the signature so anything you can find out about the print or the artist would be appreciated.



Old Iron for Japan, by Glenn Anthony Wessels.  1936 lithograph on paper


A.  Your lithograph print captures a sliver of time when between the Great Depression and the beginning of the Second World War when previously cordial economic allegiances between the US and Japan began to erode. In 1936, the artist himself, Glenn Anthony Wessels might have felt rumblings.

At the same time the US was in its great Depression, Japan was growing as an economic powerhouse.  Their burgeoning economy was, however, held in check somewhat by the lack of raw materials in Japan. Japan was dependent on western resources – particularly metal and oil from the US. 

Attitudes towards Japan began to change in after Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931.  And even more so after the Japanese atrocities in China Feelings ran high in Europe and Australia where it was felt that the US was supporting Japan by supplying raw materials – especially scrap iron - used for armaments.  Atrocities by Japan against Chinese civilians in 1937, Japan's alliance to Germany and Italy, and Hitler's support of Japanese expansion into Asia triggered protests in the US.  By 1940, Roosevelt had put economic sanctions in place and stopped the export of scrap metal to Japan.

A group of Chinese demonstrators at the waterfront in San Francisco carrying signs protesting the sale of scrap iron to Japan. December 20, 1938. Photographer unknown. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Oakland Museum of California.

In 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. In 1943, due to the surging wartime economy in the US, the Federal Arts Project and the Works Projects Administration ended.

Glenn Anthony Wessel, like so many artists of his generation, stove to capture the realism of everyday life in the first half of the 20th century with an almost documentary efficiency.  In addition to his local murals, Wessels work can be found at the Seattle Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California; the Achenbach Collection at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco has a print of this very lithograph.

The markets for 20th century realism and the markets for works by former WPA artists are strong.  Your lithograph, “Old Iron for Japan” would likely sell in the $200-400 range.