Deceptive: the fake Vermeer sold to Göring. Photo: Shutterstock

Forging the Führer: inside the sinister trend for fake Hitler paintings

Unbeknownst to many, the market for faked Hitler paintings is thriving. But who is buying them—and why?
April 2, 2019

A few months ago, on 24th January, German police raided an auction house in Berlin and impounded three paintings by Adolf Hitler. The police said they had reason to believe the paintings were fakes, and that the auction house was selling items belonging to third parties under false pretences. The raid made headlines across the world. Almost any story involving Hitler does.

Why would anybody want to create a fake Hitler painting? The answer is obvious: there’s money in it. With a reserve price of £3,500 (€4,000) apiece, the paintings were expected to attract a bidding war between collectors. Another Hitler painting had sold in Munich in 2014 for £112,000 (€130,000). The annual turnover of the market in Nazi memorabilia of all kinds is estimated to be around £30m. Although the major auction houses won’t handle this material, and sales have been banned from eBay, a vigorous trade continues, especially on the internet.

What matters in the world of Nazi memorabilia, of course, is not the quality of the product but the identity of its producer. A Hitler signature at the bottom of the canvas raises its value, in much the same way that signing the dictator’s name at the bottom of every page of the notorious “Hitler diaries” helped their forger, Konrad Kujau, grab such attention in the early 1980s.

It matters not that Hitler’s paintings are hardly great art. As a young man, Hitler had wanted to make a career as an artist; but he failed the entrance examination for the Vienna Academy of Fine Art not once but twice. He was not without some competence as a draughtsman, he was told, but he was unable to draw the human body or head, the principal foci of academic training in the arts at the time. Why, the Academy suggested, didn’t he become an architect instead? But this would have meant the humiliation of going back to school to secure the necessary qualifications. Instead, he eked out a living in Vienna and later in Munich by painting and colouring postcards, producing many hundreds of works in the process, before he enlisted in the German army at the outbreak of the First World War and left his life as an artist behind.

The few surviving paintings by the later Nazi dictator that can be authenticated depict lifeless townscapes, devoid of character, perhaps reflecting the emptiness of his inner being. They are easy to forge, and the market has long been awash with obvious fakes. Indeed, forgeries of Hitler’s art began to circulate as soon as he came to power, many of them apparently made by his agent Reinhold Hanisch in Vienna.

Hitler’s style was so characterless that even the Führer himself couldn’t tell what was genuine and what was fake. After a vain attempt to have his own works identified and catalogued, he banned their sale in 1937. Hanisch had already been arrested and died in custody a few months later.

Because they have no particular aesthetic value, and also because of the reputational risk of starting to trade in Hitleriana, the major dealers and galleries have never gone about the tedious task of authenticating the paintings, although they are the only institutions to command the necessary expertise. Consequently, forgeries continue to circulate in considerable numbers. Weeks after the Berlin raid, in February, some 63 paintings attributed to Hitler were seized by police from an auction house in Nuremberg on the suspicion that they were not genuine.

And it’s not only in Germany: another 77 lots of Hitler artworks sold by Mullocks auction house in Church Stretton, Shropshire, between 2009 and 2018, were written off by a Dutch art expert as fakes. Many of them are still-life paintings, which Hitler never attempted, or oils rather than watercolours, although watercolour is the only medium that Hitler is known to have used, or depict scenes of towns and villages that Hitler never visited. Mullocks rightly pointed out in advance that these artworks were not authenticated, but buyers paid a total of £271,000 for them anyway, not heeding the auctioneer’s warnings.

"Hitler’s lifeless paintings reflect the emptiness of his inner being"

In the end, these kind of buyers believe what they want to believe—as they always have. During the occupation of the Netherlands, the Dutch artist Han Van Meegeren sold what he claimed was a rare Vermeer entitled Christ with the Adulteress to Hermann Göring. After the war Van Meegeren was reviled as a traitor and put on trial for collaboration. But he hadn’t sold a national treasure to the Nazi: he had painted the picture himself. When he proved he was the forger, public opinion in the Netherlands hailed him as a hero for fooling the Reichsmarschall—despite the fact that he had also sold numerous other forgeries of Netherlandish Old Masters during the war to Dutch buyers anxious to keep their national heritage out of Nazi hands. Looking at Van Meegeren “Vermeers” today, it seems amazing that they were hailed as unknown masterpieces by the 17th-century artist: the human figures in particular are utterly different from Vermeer’s.

In some circumstances, authenticity is in the eye of the beholder: and in any case, collectors of fake Hitler paintings are more motivated by shock value than aesthetics. They might well get a kick out of displaying them even if they know they aren’t genuine.

So who are the collectors? A number of individuals active in the market for Hitler paintings, genuine or fake, are wealthy businessmen. The best-known of these was the Texan millionaire Billy Price, who amassed a vast collection of anything and everything connected to Hitler, including the Führer’s cutlery, photograph albums and much more. Price conceived the ambition of tracking down all the paintings attributed to Hitler; no fewer than 33 of them were seen by visitors hanging from the walls of his mansion in the early 1980s. He even sued the US government to try to get it to release real or alleged Hitler paintings in its custody. Price poured a good deal of his own money into publishing a lavishly illustrated catalogue of Hitler’s artworks. Alas, a lot of the items listed in the book were known forgeries and the catalogue is worthless. In the end, he sold off his collection after someone who objected to its presence in Houston fired a gun at his office.

"Kevin Wheatcroft, a collector of Nazi memorabilia, sleeps in Hitler’s bed—though he says he’s changed the mattress"

More recently, there is the case of British property millionaire and owner of the Donington Park racetrack Kevin Wheatcroft. He keeps a huge collection of Second World War and Nazi memorabilia in a series of barns near Market Harborough, including 88 tanks, the door of Hitler’s cell in Landsberg prison (where he was interned after the Beer-Hall putsch of 1923), Eva Braun’s gramophone, and the wine racks from Hitler’s mountain retreat above Berchtesgaden. Wheatcroft sleeps in Hitler’s bed, though he says that he’s changed the mattress. He continues to spend time and money tracking down Hitler mementos. “I think Hitler and Göring were such fascinating characters in so many ways,” he has said, “Hitler’s eye for quality was just extraordinary.” Up to now, his collection has not been open to the public, though apparently he is considering putting a number of items on show.

There are thousands more collectors like Price and Wheatcroft, though few whose mania for collecting Nazi memorabilia matches theirs in scale or ambition. What drives them? In his wickedly entertaining account of the Hitler diaries affair in 1983, Selling Hitler, Robert Harris speculated that collectors like Price saw Hitler as the ultimate example of a self-made man, treading a path that took him from the doss-houses of Vienna to the dictatorship of Germany. This is a rags-to-riches story that the Nazi leader himself told many times in his own public speeches, drawing an explicit parallel with what he portrayed as his rescue of Germany from the depths of defeat in 1918 to the domination of Europe just over two decades later.

But the self-made man thesis doesn’t cover all cases. Wheatcroft inherited much of his fortune from his father, while another major collector was the sixth Marquess of Bath, who died in 1992. This aristocrat amassed a collection that included over 30 Hitler paintings (many, needless to say, forgeries), a pair of SS leader Heinrich Himmler’s spectacles, and a first edition of Mein Kampf. He was motivated by a strong admiration for Hitler, which he expressed on numerous occasions, though there was also an element of cocking a snook at convention, a trait that runs strongly through his family (his son, the seventh Marquess, has kept over 70 mistresses, whom he calls “wifelets,” and dresses decidedly unconventionally).

More generally, Nazi memorabilia attract admiring interest from neo-Nazis across the internet. At the most extreme end, there are collectors like Ian Forman, who was convicted in 2014 under anti-terrorist legislation of plotting to blow up a mosque in Liverpool and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Items found by police in his possession included a Nazi uniform and an SS cap (which he photographed himself wearing) and other pieces attesting to his admiration for the Nazis. He was likely unable to afford any of the Führer’s supposed artworks, but we can imagine he might have enjoyed having one on his bedroom wall.

But the fascination that Nazi memorabilia hold for most collectors, including the likes of Price and Wheatcroft, is not straightforwardly political. They belong in a wider culture of collectors of militaria, reflected in a large swathe of the publishing world, where military history—from serious works of scholarship by writers like Max Hastings and Antony Beevor to technical manuals detailing every nut and bolt on the T-54 tank—is a major genre attracting millions of readers, -overwhelmingly male and often of a certain age. Go to any airport bookshop and the shelves marked “military history” contain more books than the other history shelves put together, even if many of these books are remotely related to the subject. (My own three-volume account of the Third Reich, for example, in which armies and battles only occupy a relatively small part, is usually found under “military history.”) Living in an age from which major European or world wars are fortunately absent, many men gain vicarious endorsement of their male identity from reading about the ultra-macho activities of mass killing and destruction, and investing in objects that contributed to them.

But the cult of Nazi memorabilia is a corner of “blood-and-guts” history with some very distinctive properties. One of its most striking features is the extent to which it is located above all in the United States. In many European countries, though not of course Britain, the memory of brutal occupation by the Nazis is still enough to divest the swastika, the SS uniform, the steel helmet or the Hitler painting of the kind of appeal it seems to hold for collectors in America. One might even speculate that the place of violence in American culture, so strikingly marked by the prevalence of gun ownership, makes a fascination with the most violent and destructive regime in history more acceptable than in Europe.

But memory works in complex and contradictory ways. At the same time as the real memory of the Nazi era is fading, cultural memory seems to be growing stronger. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in particular, the Holocaust has taken a central place in popular, collective memory. Especially in the US, Holocaust museums, beginning in 1993 with the national museum in Washington and spreading so far to 28 different states, have become a major factor in embedding into public consciousness events that took place thousands of miles away and many decades ago. Holocaust movies, television programmes, books, magazines, memorials and more besides, have grown in number since the early 1990s. There are cable channels that seem to offer nothing but documentaries and dramas focusing on Hitler and the Nazis.

Beyond this, research, especially in Germany, has uncovered fresh evidence of Nazi barbarity over the past few decades. Fifty years ago, for example, British and American historians, focusing on the war’s western front, regarded the Wehrmacht as a decent fighting force that adhered by and large to the norms and conventions of warfare. As we have learned more about the Germans’ conduct of war in the east, however, and their genocidal occupation of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Western Russia and the Balkans, this image has been replaced by one in which the regular armed forces were no less violent and murderous in their treatment of civilians and prisoners of war than the SS. A large quantity of new evidence about the Nazis’ mass murder of some 200,000 mentally ill and handicapped Germans has been laid bare. Large numbers of seemingly respectable members of German society—-doctors, judges, statisticians, geographers, historians, foreign office bureaucrats, and many more—are now known to have been willing or enthusiastic participants in, and even instruments of, genocidal mass murder. The SS is no longer, as the historian Gerald Reitlinger put it in 1981, the “alibi of a nation.”

The Nazis corrupted a whole society, and have thus come to appear in our collective memory as the supreme instance of pure evil in recent history. It doesn’t matter how bad a work of art or a piece of memorabilia is, the important thing is that it was touched by one of the most wicked men in history and so, somehow, provides a kind of link with him. It can give the owner a kind of thrill, rather like that of visiting the London Dungeon with its recreations of torture and replica skulls and skeletons on display. When Julius Krautz, the Prussian state executioner, retired at the end of the 1880s, he opened a restaurant in Berlin, taking advantage of his training, decades before, as a pastry cook. He rightly thought that his customers would enjoy the frisson of being served cream cakes from the hands of a man who in the course of his career had decapitated some 55 offenders with a hand-held axe.

This commodification of Hitleriana is certainly distasteful, but may also seem rather trivial. And yet Hitler’s thwarted ambition to be a painter had very real consequences when he came to power in 1933. Nazi propagandists portrayed him, with his approval, as an artist reshaping the German people in a new image, moulding its disparate, warring factions into a united, aggressive, intolerant whole. Imagining the future he thought Germany could look forward to, Hitler turned to architecture, the branch of the arts recommended to him by the Vienna Academy, and with the help of Albert Speer, his tame architect, drafted megalomaniac designs for vast new buildings in Berlin, to be renamed Germania, the world capital of the future.

And, evidently still burning with resentment at the failure of his painstakingly representational watercolours to win official approval, he vented his spleen on the abstract, primitivist and expressionist artists who had made a name for themselves under the Weimar Republic, confiscating their work and putting it into an exhibition of “degenerate art,” while the artists themselves were forced into exile or banned from painting if they stayed in Germany. The last act of this Philistine drama was played out in 1939 in the courtyard of the old fire station in Berlin, as thousands of “degenerate” works of art were piled up and set alight. When they contemplate the Hitler paintings on their wall, whether they are genuine or not, those who have bought them might spare a thought for all the human misery and aesthetic impoverishment their supposed creator caused.