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Forging the Führer

The sinister trade in fake Hitler paintings is thriving. But who is buying them—and why?

© CENTRAL PRESS/GETTY IMAGES, PHOTO12/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES, THE PRINT COLLECTOR/PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY IMAGES

Afew 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.

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InProspect's May issue: Tom Clark explores how British politics has ended up in crisis and suggests that a proper constitution could have avoided the current chaos and may well be necessary now to avoid the same problems in the future. Elsewhere in the issue: Kevin Maguire profiles Labour deputy leader Tom Watson who says that “if needs must” he would join a government of national unity. Max Rashbrooke examines Jacinda Ardern’s government in New Zealand and the ways the country is being transformed, ultimately suggesting that it could be an example for Britain to follow. Also, Stefanie Marsh follows the work of a donor detective who is helping children conceived by anonymous sperm donation to find their biological parents and Francesca Wade shows how Virginia Woolf is inspiring a new generation of women writers.