Berlin police seize 'A. Hitler' paintings on forgery suspicions at auction

Three bland watercolor paintings supposedly signed and painted by Adolf Hitler before WWI were set to be auctioned off in Berlin. But a tip from a private individual that they might be fakes prompted police to act.

A police raid Thursday ended a Berlin auction house's plans to open bidding on three bland pastoral watercolor works supposedly painted by Adolf Hitler between 1910-11.

Hitler had aspired to be an artist before he turned to politics, rose to lead the Nazi party and organized the mass murder of over 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. Hundreds of his artworks exist, as do many forgeries.

Spokesperson Patricia Brämer from the Berlin State Police Office (LKA) confirmed to DW that police had taken the three paintings from the Kloss Auction House in order to investigate suspicions of forgery. 

'Niederthal, Vent' is one of the watercolors signed by 'A. Hitler' that Berlin police seized

The police had acted after a private person informed them yesterday that the three works signed "A. Hitler" could, in fact, be fakes, Brämer said. After initial investigations by the police's team of art experts, the police obtained legal permission to seize the works from the auction house on suspicion of fraud and forged certification, she added.

With the paintings now in police possession, investigators will continue to examine whether the certificates of authenticity for the three paintings are legitimate. 

This 'Rhineland scene' is another one of the paintings seized by the Berlin police

Hundreds of artworks, many forgeries

The works that Kloss had planned to auction had been authenticated by a US-based handwriting specialist, Frank Garo, Reuters reported. The "A. Hitler" signature at the bottom of the paintings "shows spontaneity, proper letter size…and no sign being drawn or forced," Garo said, according to Reuters.

Upon inquiry from DW, an official at the Kloss Auction House was unable to provide any information beyond that they had obtained the official certification documents for the paintings. The website lists the certificates of authenticity as dated between November 2017 and April 2018.

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art

Degenerate art

Modern art works whose style, artist or subject did not meet with the approval of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists were labeled "degenerate art." From 1937, the Nazis confiscated such works from German museums. In a traveling exhibition, "degenerate art" was held up for public ridicule. Here we see Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and Hitler at the original exhibition in Munich.

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art

Hitler's art

Hitler had an affinity for Romanticism and 19th century painting and preferred peaceful country scenes. His private collection included works by Cranach, Tintoretto and Bordone. Like his role models Ludwig I. of Bavaria and Frederick the Great, Hitler wanted to manage his own art exhibition at retirement, to be shown in the city of Linz on the River Danube in the "Führer Museum."

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art

The confiscations

The National Socialists were not the first to persecute avant-garde artists, but they took it a step further by banning their works from museums. In 1937, the authorities had over 20,000 art works removed from 101 state-owned German museums. Anything that the Nazis didn't consider edifying to the German people was carted off.

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art

Hitler's national style

Abstract art had no place in Hitler's "national style," as grew clear when the "Great German Art Exhibition" put traditional landscape, historical and nude paintings by artists including Fritz Erler, Hermann Gradl and Franz Xaver Stahl on display in Munich on July 18, 1937. The closer the depicted subject to the actual model was, the more beautiful it was in the eyes of the Führer.

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art

What was considered degenerate

Even those in Hitler's inner circle were highly unsure which artists he approved of. The 1937 "Great German Art Exhibition" and the simultaneous "Degerate Art" exhibition in Munich's Court Garden Arcades brought some clarity. Unwelcome were creative artists of the modern period including Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Pechstein.

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art

Degenerate art on tour

In the "Degerate Art" exhibition, 650 confiscated artworks from 32 German museums were on display, the exhibits equated with sketches by mentally handicapped persons and shown together with photos of crippled persons. The intention: to provoke revulsion and aversion among visitors. Over two million visitors saw the exhibition on its tour of various cities.

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art

Legal foundation

The "Degenerate Artworks Confiscation Law" of May 31, 1938 retroactively legalized their unremunerated acquisition by the state. The law remained valid in the postwar years, the allies determining that it had simply been a redistribution of state property. Unlike stolen artworks, pieces that the Nazis labled "degenerate" and had removed from museums can be freely traded today.

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art

The "degenerate art" trade

The confiscated art was taken to storage facilities in Berlin and at Schönhausen Palace. Many works were sold by Hitler's four art merchants: Bernhard A. Böhmer, Karl Buchholz, Hildebrand Gurlitt and Ferdinand Möller. On March 20, 1939 the Berlin fire department burned approximately 5,000 unsold artifacts, calling it an "exercise."

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art

Art hub Switzerland

125 works were earmarked for an auction in Switzerland. A commission charged by Hermann Göring and others with liquefying the "degenerate" art products estimated the minimum bidding prices and commissioned the Fischer Gallery in Lucerne to carry out the auction. Taking place on June 30, 1939, it met with eager interest worldwide.

How Hitler and the Nazis defamed art

Much "degenerate art" in the Gurlitt collection

Over 21,000 works of "degenerate art" were confiscated. Estimates on the number subsequently sold differ; sources estimate 6,000 to 10,000. Others were destroyed or disappeared. Hundreds of artworks believed lost turned up in Cornelius Gurlitt's collection — and reignited the discussion.

Prior to the auction, a spokesperson from Kloss  had described Hitler's paintings as being artistically worthless.

"In my view they have no artistic value," Heinz-Joachim Maeder had told the Reuters news agency. "It's simply adequate craftsmanship. The value of these objects and the media interest is because of the name at the bottom."

"If you walk down the Seine and see 100 artists, 80 will be better than this," Maeder added.

The signature 'A. Hitler' with date 1910 on the bottom of the watercolor landscapes could possibly have been faked

The starting bid price for each individual painting had been set at €4,000. The sellers of the paintings did not wish to be identified.

Read more: Hitler paintings on auction - who buys them?

Hitler tried unsuccessfully to earn a living as an artist prior to fighting in WWI, during which time he churned out lots of postcards and paintings for petty cash. He also tried and failed twice to gain entry into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.

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Arts.21 | 12.03.2016

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