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Did an Auction of Hitler’s Art Go Too Far?

A collection of Hitler’s paintings just sold for $450,000

Hitler's signature on one of his watercolors. (KAI PFAFFENBACH/Reuters/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Would you pay $450,000 for the mediocre paintings of the man Winston Churchill called “the mainspring of evil”? That’s how much a collector recently paid for a batch of paintings by Adolf Hitler, former art student turned genocidal dictator, writes The Washington Post’s Michael E. Miller — and the spectacular sale is raising eyebrows as well as questions about the ethics of auction houses who sell contentious art.

The batch of paintings, which was purchased at Weidler auction house in Nuremberg, Germany, included 14 items that Miller says ranged “from ornate watercolors of German castles to pictures of pretty flowers.” But it was their artist, not their artistic merit, that commanded a huge price.

Miller writes that the sale of Hitler’s art is the latest example of auction houses who sell art that’s been stolen, co-opted, or put on the market in spite of their creators’ wishes. Earlier this year, he notes, a New Jersey auction house pulled pieces of art created by Japanese-Americans in World War II internment camps when they protested the art’s commercial sale instead of its use for educational purposes. No one really knows if Hitler would have wanted his art auctioned, but the fact that the man lead a mass genocide gives many pause over just how much people should be profiting or spending on his work. 

Other contentious sales include those staged by museums who are “deaccessioning” their art to make up for budget shortfalls. But the sale of Hitler’s art is perhaps the most ethically perilous of all. Not only did he famously fail to gain admission to art school twice due to his less-than-impressive drawing skills, in later years, he stayed focused on art as his Reich forbade and confiscated Jewish and “degenerate” art. 

Some historians contend that this rejection fomented his hatred of Jewish people, whom he blamed for his inability to pursue his artistic dreams. Others see his fanatical acts of persuasion and violence as evidence for his artistic leanings. As Peter Schjeldahl writes in The New Yorker, “it seems clear that Hitler employed artistic means—hypnotic oratory, moving spectacle, elegant design—not just to gain power but to wield it in the here and now.”

Hitler will always be known for orchestrating the mass murder of millions of Jews. But that still doesn’t explain one collector’s desire to pay hundreds of thousands to own his art. 

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