Josef Capek woodcut print reveals robot inventor's artistic side

A woodcut print from Josef Capek (1887-1945) will sell in Christie's Prints and Multiples auction on April 16 in London, revealing its fascinating history.

Josef Capek Der Saufer print
Capek is credited with the invention of the word robot, which comes from the Czech word 'robota', meaning labour.

The then-unidentified print was originally bought by the consignor for just £20 at a provincial UK auction house.

Later valued by Christie's at up to £800 ($1,335), it was revealed to be a woodcut by painter, poet and author Josef Capek, brother to one of the greatest Czech literary exports, Karel Capek (1890-1938).

"It seems that most bidders didn't even give the print a second glance and as a result I was the only bidder," the consignor told Paul Fraser Collectibles.  

Karel Capek became instantly famous following the release of his stage play Rossum's Universal Robots (RUR) in 1920, in which the word "robot" was used for the first time. However, it was actually Josef who came up with the word, as related by Karel in an article following the play's release:

"The author of the play R.U.R. did not, in fact, invent that word; he merely ushered it into existence. It was like this: the idea for the play came to said author in a single, unguarded moment. And while it was still warm he rushed immediately to his brother Josef, the painter, who was standing before an easel and painting away at a canvas till it rustled. 'Listen, Josef,' the author began, 'I think I have an idea for a play.'

"'But,' the author said, 'I don't know what to call these artificial workers. I could call them Labori, but that strikes me as a bit bookish.' 'Then call them Robots,' the painter muttered, brush in mouth, and went on painting."

Josef Capek's work is predominantly expressionist, exploring areas of cubism and later, Bohemian folk art. Well known for his vehement opposition to Hitler's regime, he was arrested during the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and sent to various concentration camps.

He survived until the end of the second world war, but died of pneumonia in 1945, just days before prisoners were freed from the Bergen-Belsen camp.

The print is a superb woodcut entitled Der Saufer, which translates as The Drunkard in German. 

A lot of seven similar linocuts by Capek sold for £7,500 ($11,933) at Christie's in September 2013.

Discover more of the most fascinating auction consignments with our free newsletter.

Featured products

Elvis Presley Authentic Strand of Hair
Elvis Presley Authentic Strand of Hair
Sale price£399
In stock
Fidel Castro signed certificateFidel Castro Signed Certificate
Fidel Castro signed certificate
Sale price£2,995
In stock
King Henry VIII Autographed DocumentKing Henry VIII Autographed Document
King Henry VIII Autographed Document
Sale price£55,000
In stock