A German auction house’s plans to sell 31 paintings and drawings by Adolf Hitler made headlines earlier this week. But in a twist that will come as little surprise to those who keep an eye on the shadowy trade of Hitler’s art, a majority of those works are now believed to be fakes.
As Catherine Hickley reports for the Art Newspaper, a prosecutor seized 63 watercolors, drawings and paintings said to have been falsely attributed to Hitler from the Auktionshaus Weidler in Nuremberg—the city, incidentally, where the Nazis encoded discriminatory laws against German Jews, and where Nazi crimes were prosecuted in the wake of WWII. The auction house had intended to put 26 of the confiscated works on the auction block this Saturday; the starting prices ranged from 130 to 45,000 euros (around $150 to $51,000 USD), according to the Washington Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker. In the wake of the confiscations, the auction will proceed with five works that are believed to be authentic, along with a vase, a table cloth and a wicker chair that reportedly once belonged to the Führer.
Auctioneer Kerstin Weidler said that the suspected fakes came from private consigners from a number of different countries, reports Hickley. A spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office revealed that “unidentified individuals” are under investigation for forgery, but the auction house is not the subject of the probe.
Before his ascent to power, Hitler painted prolifically; in Mein Kampf he writes that he produced up to three works a day while living in Vienna between 1908 and 1913, Stanley-Becker points out. Hitler made a paltry living peddling idyllic depictions of Vienna to tourists on the streets of Austria’s capital. His work was thoroughly mediocre, or worse, according to some critics, and he was rejected twice from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. But Hitler “always retained his self-image as an artist and as someone obsessed with art,” historian Birgit Schwarz told Spiegel Online in 2009. “The rebuff from the academy was probably what prompted him to consider himself a genius.”
Germany has banned Nazi iconography, but selling works by the Führer is legal so long as they don’t contain any Nazi symbols. Auktionshaus Weidler is one of the more prominent distributors of art reportedly created by Hitler; in 2015, it sold 14 paintings and drawings for around $450,000 USD.
So, who is buying the art of one of the most reviled figures in human history? When asked by Deutsche Welle if her customers were all “old Nazis,” Kerstin Weidler claimed this was not the case. “Among the buyers, we have collectors who want to own a piece of world history,” she said. “There are customers from all over the world, for example a museum in Brazil.” More generally, though, a global market for Nazi memorabilia still thrives today—a trend that has alarmed activists.
“While there are perfectly legitimate reasons for acquiring Nazi memorabilia, it is also the case that such items are in demand by those who fetishise the Nazi regime or by far-right groups who publicly display them at their events,” Stephen Silverman, director of investigations and enforcement at the Campaign Against anti-Semitism, told the BBC last April.
The buyers of Hitler’s art, whoever they are, might be displeased to learn that this niche market is riddled with fakes—perhaps because “art historians have better things to do than authenticate the artworks of this monster,” as art critic Jonathan Jones put it bluntly in the Guardian. Just a few weeks prior to the seizure of the reported fakes at Auktionshaus Weidler, police confiscated three landscapes signed by “A. Hitler” from on auction house in Berlin, on suspicion that they were forgeries.
“No one is controlling this dubious trade in sick ephemera,” Jones writes. “Is it harmless? No. Every time a supposed painting by Adolf Hitler appears, unquestioned, in a newspaper or on TV, someone will be thinking: ‘That’s not bad, the man was an artist.’ It falsely humanises him.”