What am I bid for Adolf Hitler's dessert spoon?
They don't like to talk about it, but collectors of Nazi memorabilia are willing to pay high prices for Third Reich relics, writes Shane Hegarty
The secretive world of Nazi memorabilia came briefly into the limelight this week when, in London's High Court, an Irish law officer accused a former friend and fellow collector of selling him fake Hermann Goering items. The buyer alleged that he had paid £160,000 for the air marshal chief's shoulder board and insignia, a baton, and two daggers presented by Goering to others, only to later discover that they were not authentic. A confidential out-of-court settlement was reached.
Meanwhile, in Sunderland, a row over a chalice believed to have belonged to Goering was recently settled only after the collector had been jailed for kidnapping a dog, after he had given the antique to a friend allegedly as payment for a debt, who then refused to return it. "If you had told me this morning I was due to be dealing with a case involving Hermann Goering, a Nazi chalice and a dog, I would have regarded it as a joke," said the court recorder. The collection of Nazi memorabilia, though, is a serious business, and both cases gave a glimpse into a corner of the collectibles market that is profitable but rife with suspicion, and which prefers to keep a low profile from an often hostile public.
Third Reich items are the most popular in the militaria market. They have been since 1945, when victorious allied soldiers looted Nazi offices, military HQs and soldiers' corpses. It is, however, an expensive hobby and the size and type of collection is dictated by wealth. In Ireland, alongside the ordinary collectors of cheaper items such as medals and badges, there are a number of barristers, doctors and businessmen who collect the more expensive items, such as ceremonial weapons, uniforms and items with direct links to the leading Nazi figures.
Business is often done privately, between collectors. They worry about their intentions being misunderstood; that it might be presumed they have Nazi sympathies.
"It's nothing to do with a political connection at all," according to one militaria collector and dealer. "I wouldn't know anyone who collects Nazi memorabilia for that reason. Firstly, it'll be because they have an interest in second World War history and, secondly, because German army equipment was so well manufactured and designed. Third Reich medals are often very detailed and were made to last."
Irish militaria are also hugely popular among collectors here, he adds, "but while Irish medals are very well designed too, they are usually made of rubbish materials".
Nevertheless, many outsiders find the hobby distasteful. In Ireland, dealers and collectors have occasionally been subjected to verbal abuse. Nazi goods are banned from open sale in France, Germany and Italy. They are prohibited from the world's largest online auction site, eBay. In 2000, a French court cited that country's anti-hate laws when demanding that website Yahoo! stop the sale of Nazi memorabilia through its site. Some 1,200 items - including SS daggers, swastikas, propaganda films, belt buckles and even replicas of Zyklon B poison gas canisters - were subsequently removed from its site.
However, last year three Jewish groups charged Yahoo!'s former president Tim Koogle with "justifying war crimes and crimes against humanity"; an accusation dismissed by a Paris court.
There are, though, relatively few dealers in Ireland, and most serious collectors look to the auction houses in the UK or Europe and, increasingly, to the Internet. Such is the potential profit that the German war graves commission recently complained of treasure hunters in Russia digging up and looting German corpses. Financed by wealthy Western collectors, expeditions regularly set out in search of sunken U-boats and downed planes. A downed fighter plane can fetch tens of thousands of dollars.
A helmet will cost upwards from €300 depending on the unit. An Iron Cross, Second Class sells for about €100. SS memorabilia are at the top end of the market and among the most sought after, partly because less of it was made. As is common in the collectibles world, individuals will specialise. Some collectors concentrate on particular regiments. Others collect uniforms, sometimes focusing specifically on combat uniforms or political uniforms.
As this week's court case showed, high prices are paid for items linked to major Nazi figures. Those connected to Hitler are particularly sought after; whether it is signed copies of Mein Kampf, documents alleged to have been signed by him, or cutlery from his household. Hitler's art commands a particularly high price, the foremost collector being a Texas millionaire, Billy F. Price.
However, some of Price's collection turned out to be the work of a forger, in this case Konrad Kujau, who was also responsible for the faked Hitler Diaries which fooled German magazine Stern, the Sunday Times and then the world in 1983. It has always been an area in which the buyer must beware, a market flooded with fakes and less-reputable dealers trying to make a quick buck.
While the provenance of British or American items is more easily traced, Nazi items are less so. There is a healthy and honest trade in imitation Nazi swords, knives, medals and other militaria. However, these are often touched up to be made look older, given a good yarn to go with it and then sold on as the genuine article. While more experienced collectors might be able to spot a genuine Iron Cross, First Class (€300), a more innocent buyer might inadvertently pay top dollar for a reconstruction that previously retailed at only €20.
Nevertheless, the trade continues to flourish, although it does so quietly. While popular among collectors, it has yet to find wider acceptance.
"It is a serious problem," says a dealer. "Because by banning it and then hiding it away, you are making it more subversive and, in some countries, illegal. At least by bringing it out you can remind people of the history of the Nazis and what they did. Most collectors, though, tend to keep it quiet. It is not something they might want to show the in-laws."