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As Nazi objects and fakes enter collectors’ market, should museums show them?

Highly publicised sales and seizures of Nazi memorabilia raise questions about whether such items should be exhibited

The initials "AH" can be seen in a top hat supposedly owned by Adolf Hitler in the auction house Hermann Historica Photo by: Matthias Balk/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

A recent rash of sales of Nazi memorabilia raise questions about dealing in such objects at a time when fascist philosophy is being embraced by populist radicals and demand is fuelling the commerce in fakes.

Last month, a Lebanese businessman in Switzerland, Abdalla Chatila, paid around €50,000 at a Munich auction for a top hat said to have been worn by Adolf Hitler. He donated it with other Nazi objects from that sale to an Israeli foundation. "I did not want these objects to fall into the wrong hands and to be used by people with dishonest intentions," Chatila says. Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial, praised Chatila and announced plans to exhibit the hat.

Yet there are doubts about whether the hat had anything to do with Hitler, and German police are now investigating the object. Documentation records that a top hat belonging to Hitler was vandalised and taken as a souvenir in Munich in 1945 by a Jewish American soldier, but the object sold at auction was in excellent condition. “There’s absolutely no evidence that this top hat was once in the possession of Hitler,” says Bart F.M. Droog, the publisher of Droog Magazine, which investigates the trade in Nazi objects.

Earlier this month, the Holocaust Museum of Buenos Aires, the only Holocaust museum in Latin America, completed an expansion and now holds dozens of objects of Nazi memorabilia. The objects were seized by police from a smuggler and turned over to the institution. But a German art historian flown in by law enforcement judged the work to be “inauthentic”, mostly pieces embellished in recent years with Nazi symbols.    

And in October, shortly before a judge in Montevideo, Uruguay, ruled that a businessman could sell a bronze Nazi eagle and swastika sculpture salvaged in 2006 from the Graf Spee battleship, which its German commander scuttled offshore in 1939. Uruguayan Jewish groups had tried to stop the sale, which some predicted could bring in up to $50m.

The demand for Nazi objects today may have more to do with media coverage than with the market’s actual size, and rising prices are consistent with values in the general economy, according to Christian Fuhrmeister of the Central Institute for Art History (ZIKG) in Munich. But the rise in fakes is concerning. Fuhrmeister’s colleague and fellow art historian Stephan Klingen, who ruled the Argentinian museum’s works to be mostly “inauthentic”, went public with this information only after leaders of the Holocaust Museum stated that he had endorsed the trove’s Nazi origins. Misspelled German inscriptions suggest that the works, which Klingen describes as “kitsch”, were produced or embellished locally. “It was really ridiculous in the beginning, but now it has become something really serious,” Klingen says. “We can’t afford to be quoted accepting forgeries.”

Reached in Buenos Aires, Jonathan Karszenbaum, the museum’s executive director, said the museum is not exhibiting the objects, but conducting its own investigation.

Provenance is now an issue in this niche field, where associations with top Nazi officials raise ordinary objects above flea market status.

When news of the Buenos Aires trove broke in 2017, major newspapers, including the Guardian and the London Times, noted that the discovery of the works behind a fake wall suggested the secret place where Josef Mengele and other Nazis huddled.

“You have to be careful not to step in the trap of the ongoing fascination with everything Nazi,” Fuhrmeister says.

Yad Vashem walks a fine line in exhibiting Hitler’s top hat, but if Israel’s Holocaust memorial shows Nazi objects, other such museums may follow suit. Skeptics question what the historical value of the item might be. When the hat came to auction, a German rabbi called for it to be burned along with other objects associated with Hitler.

Fuhrmeister argues for careful preservation. “There is no way of denying that [the Nazi Era] ever existed. It is much more dangerous to erase the past,” he says. “If there is no object, there is no debate, there is no discourse, there is no learning.”