'Hitler paintings' go unsold at Nuremberg auction

A set of paintings that were attributed to Adolf Hitler have failed to find buyers at a highly controversial auction. The sale took place after a number of paintings were seized on suspicion they were fake.

Five paintings believed to have been the work of Adolf Hitler failed to attract buyers on Saturday, in a sale that was branded as being in bad taste.

The artworks that were on sale all depicted landscapes, with the most expensive — a view of a mountain lake — having a starting price of 45,000 euros ($51,000).

Although none of the paintings were sold, a tablecloth and Meissen vase that were thought to have been owned by Hitler fetched 630 euros and 5,500 euros respectively.

A wicker chair featuring a swastika thought to have been owned by the Nazi leader also went unsold.

Law and Justice | 07.02.2019

Read more: Can you call your baby Adolf?

No investigation was deemed necessary in the case of the five paintings that went up for auction

The sale, held by the Weidler auction house, took place in the city of Nuremberg. Mayor Ulrich Maly described the auction as "lacking in style and taste." 

In the days leading up to the auction, some 63 paintings carrying the signature "A. H." or "A. Hitler" that had been due for auction by Weidler were seized by authorities because of doubts over their authenticity. Twenty-three of the paintings were due to have gone on sale on Saturday.

Investigation for falsification

An investigation was being undertaken against persons unknown for the falsification of documents with the seized paintings, authorities said. No such probe was deemed necessary in the case of the five works that were offered for sale.

The possibility that the works might not be genuine was brought to the attention of authorities by an expert.

Read more: Hitler teeth test dispels myths of Nazi leader's survival

Related Subjects

Weidler said in a statement that the fact that the paintings had been withdrawn from sale did "not automatically mean they are fakes."

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.

Long tradition of Nazi trade 

The sale of alleged artworks painted by Hitler is a regular source of controversy, with the high prices that collectors are often willing to pay a particular point of outrage.

A watercolor of Munich's old city hall sold for 130,000 euros in 2014.

"There's a long tradition of this trade in devotional objects linked to Nazism," Stephan Klingen of the Central Institute for Art History in Munich told the AFP news agency.

"Every time there's a media buzz about it... and the prices they're bringing in have been rising constantly. Personally, that's something that quite annoys me."

Read more: Book shows Hitler's Holocaust plans for Canada, US

As a young man living in Vienna before World War I, Hitler tried to make a living as an artist. He is thought to have painted some 2,000 pictures, although experts generally say they were of mediocre quality.

In January, German police seized three watercolors of Alpine and Rhenish landscapes that had been presented as Hitler's works before an auction in Berlin, amid claims they were forged.

The paintings were dated 1910 and 1911, and were set to be offered by auction house Kloss.

Each evening at 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.