The Market for Disturbing Nazi Artifacts Is Growing. Who Is Buying Them—and Why?

The market has become so profitable that scammers are creating forgeries of the material.

A suitcase of the former art collector Cornelius Gurlitt. (Photo by Ralf Hirschberger/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Ahead of the scheduled opening of the Buenos Aires Holocaust Museum’s exhibition of 72 Nazi-era artifacts next week, the museum revealed some shocking news: all but 10 of them have been declared fakes by an international group of European experts. The revelation underscored a surprising fact about Nazi paraphernalia. Like in the market for more traditional art and collectibles, there is so much demand for this stuff that inauthentic objects and forgeries are a large part of the trade.

“A lot of fake material, ersatz garbage, is coming in from Bulgaria, Poland, the Ukraine, even Pakistan,” said Bill Panagopulos, owner of Alexander Historical Auctions in Chesapeake City, Maryland, which sells Nazi artifacts among other items. “Some of it is faked so well that it is difficult to tell.”

There’s an incentive to copy this material, obviously. Prices are on the rise. The most sought-after German World War II items that Panagopulos sells are soldiers’ medals (ranging from $30 to $200,000), helmets ($300 to $15,000) and daggers ($300 to $300,000), with the wide price differences based on condition and the importance of the individual who originally owned the item. For instance, the Knight’s Cross was the highest award in the military, and the highest prices are for those that are accompanied by a document that validates the medal and identifies which important soldier it was given to. 

Rooting Out Fakes

Sometimes, Panagopulos is able to tell an item is a fake at a glance. “Here’s a desk statue of a hippopotamus behind a fence, surrounded by swastikas,” he said, looking through a file of images on computer. “What the hell is a hippo doing on a Nazi piece? It’s so cheesy, there’s no sense to it. Here’s another: a harmonica set in a case with a smiling Hitler Youth image on it. It’s so contrived and ridiculous that it couldn’t be authentic.”

There are others that he identified as clear fakes. “Here’s a Nazi cat sitting atop a swastika. There is no symbol of a cat in Nazism; it has no business being there,” he points out. “Here’s another, a head caliper cast with a swastika and a wreath. This is a scientific instrument; it’s ridiculous that it would have these decorations on them.”

Giel van Wassenhove, owner of Giel’s Militaria in Ghent, Belgium, which sells military artifacts from the 19th and 20th centuries, noted that whether an object is authentic or not is the “million-dollar question.” More than 200 factories in Germany were producing combat medals during the Second World War, he said, and “we have a large database of medals,” consisting of designs that were created along with an archive of “well-known flaws in dies and strikes.” 

A member of the Department of Protection of the Cultural Heritage of the Federal Police shows the artifacts seized in 2017. Photo: Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images)

A Conundrum for Collectors

If it is difficult for people in the trade to know what is and is not authentic Nazi paraphernalia, private buyers have even more trouble. Howard Cohen, a retired optometrist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who principally collects “anti-semitica” (posters, books and objects that caricature and denounce Jews), noted that he once bought six Jewish ghetto armbands with yellow stars on them at a military show, “and they all turned out to be reproductions.”

Michael Bulmash, a retired clinical psychologist in Lewes, Delaware who has collected both anti-semitica and Nazi artifacts, claimed that he purchased drawings, purportedly by a rabbi in Auschwitz, depicting life in the camp. “I later found out these came out of the Ukraine,” Bulmash said. “It infuriates me that people are making money out of the Holocaust.”

Information on the authenticity of German army paraphernalia is readily available—this site is a go-to source. But there are still many confused collectors posting images of items on the forum pages of military websites (for instance, germandaggers.com), asking for input from others as to what does, and does not, look real.

In certain cases, the provenance of items is a bit more clear. Mike Morris, an 82-year-old collector and dealer of Nazi paraphernalia in Fredericksburg, Texas, noted that he visited Germany on numerous occasions starting in the late 1950s and bought directly from German military veterans or their families. “I would put ads in the local newspapers there, asking people to meet me at a hotel,” he said. “I would buy these veterans a couple of beers, and they would bring me sacks of this stuff,” which included helmets, daggers, medals, guns, flags, and uniforms. “It’s against the law in Germany to have anything with a swastika on it, so they wanted to get rid of it.”

A Niche Market

The people he sells these artifacts to are private collectors and “investor groups, [who] have researched the market and seen the returns you can get on this stuff.” Like so many other aspects of the collectibles market, Nazi-era items now have a global reach. Panagopulos said that he’s made sales to collectors in Asia and the Middle East: an SS leader’s great coat to a buyer in Qatar for $55,000, and a carved eagle and swastika to a buyer in mainland China for $30,000.

An enamel plate reading “Hermann Goering-Platz” square and a kettledrum decoration with a swastika. (Photo by MATTHIAS BALK/dpa/AFP via Getty Images)

Unlike most artwork and decorative objects, the collectors of Nazi paraphernalia tend not to display these items in their homes. “They don’t put it in the living room, but they might put it in a private room in the house or in storage,” Craig Gottlieb, a dealer in military artifacts in San Diego, California, said. (“It’s not respectful to display a swastika in public,” he added, which is something of an understatement.) Michael Bulmash intends his collection to go to Kenyon College in Ohio, his alma mater, and Howard Cohen also expects to donate his 1,000-plus collection to an institution. 

Until then, these things are kept out of sight, as even a collector’s family members generally don’t want to see them. Mike Morris, as noted, is selling off his collection bit by bit. “I’ve been married five times, and my wives have learned not to say anything about it,” he admitted.

Who Wants Them?

Who actually buys these collectibles from the 20th century’s darkest moment? Nazi artifact dealer Andreas Gronemann noted that “all my clients are educated people, university professors, medical doctors, as well as museums such as the US Holocaust Museum, and many try to preserve this kind of material for future generations and to learn from it.”

The market for Nazi paraphernalia is not new and “dates back to the war itself, when allied soldiers looted memorabilia from the Berlin bunker and many other sites at the war’s end,” said Gavriel Rosenfeld, professor of history at Fairfield University in Connecticut. “These artifacts had a market value already in the late 1950s.”

Rosenfeld said that the buyers of these objects don’t always fit one’s assumptions. “The stereotypical collector of Nazi artifacts is either a wealthy Texas oil baron with military veterans in the family tree, or neo-Nazi lunatics creating basement shrines to their historical idols,” he noted. Still, he doubts that there are many in the latter category.

The Munich-based auction house “Hermann Historica – International Auctions” where Nazi devotional objects are auctioned off. (Photo by Matthias Balk/picture alliance via Getty Images)

In recent years, far-right groups and neo-Nazi political parties have gained far greater prominence in Europe and the United States. Concern that this memorabilia would fall into the wrong hands—their hands—sparked protests against the German auction house Hermann Historica last week ahead of its sale of Nazi artifacts, including Adolf Hitler’s top hat. But in the end, several objects, including the hat, were purchased by the Lebanese-born Swiss real estate mogul Abdallah Chatila, who said he spent around $660,000 to keep the objects from being purchased by neo-Nazis. He plans to donate them to a Jewish organization, the Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal group, according to the AP

Dealers of Nazi memorabilia say that while neo-Nazis may fuel the demand for less expensive reproductions, they are less likely to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on authentic Nazi artifacts. Experts speculate that neo-Nazis can just as easily make their own flags and emblems for far less money than purchasing an old one at auction.

Paul Jaskot, professor of art history and visual studies at Duke University, noted that “fascism and National Socialism in particular exerts a compelling imaginatory experience for many people, the thrill of violence in modern society, the idea of hyper-masculinity, what Susan Sontag once called ‘fascinating fascism.'” For his part, Craig Gottlieb said that his Nazi artifacts buyers are “mostly male, aged 40s to 60s, white collar but not uber-wealthy. As far as I can tell, they don’t have any political interest in the material.”

There are a number of collecting markets that have a decided “ick” factor, and Nazi artifacts is doubtlessly one of them. Some objects, such as the battlefield-frayed helmets and uniforms, speak of important moments in history, while other items merely fall into the category of disturbing ephemera—such as a used handkerchief that had belonged to Hermann Goering, or Eva Braun’s underpants, both of which have sold at auction. 


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