More than 100 years have passed since an impoverished, homeless, failed art student sought to survive in Vienna by selling his sketches and watercolors for a pittance.
That artist was destined to become one of the most destructive dictators in history, responsible for a war that would cost 75 to 80 million lives, including the genocide of six million Jews.
This Saturday, as an auction demonstrates, there remains a market for Adolf Hitler's artwork, whether it be forged, or authentic.
Auktionhaus Weidler in Nuremberg, Germany, is auctioning 31 drawings and watercolor landscapes of rural Germany attributed to the Nazi dictator. A spokesperson for the auction house said people purchase Hitler’s works because it’s part of history. Auctioneer Kerstin Weidler said the auction house customers come from all over the world, including a museum in Brazil.
One of the works to be auctioned is a nude drawing of Hitler’s niece, Geli Raubel, who lived with him in a spacious, upscale apartment in Munich in 1929. Some historians say they were lovers. Three years later, Raubel was found dead in the apartment with a self-inflicted gunshot wound from Hitler’s pistol, an apparent suicide.
“Many of the buyers come from Arab countries and Iran where anti-Semitism is high, and that may motivate purchases,” said Stefan Koldehoff, cultural editor of Deutschlandfunk (German public radio).
Koldehoff said the Chinese are also gobbling up Hitler drawings, perhaps because they have a fascination with him. In Germany, it is legal to sell Hitler paintings provided they do not contain Nazi symbols.
Hitler did most of his artwork in the years between 1908 and 1913 when he wandered about Vienna in a state of abject poverty, often living in squalid homeless shelters. He twice failed the entrance exam to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, in 1907 and 1908. His drawing skills were deemed “unsatisfactory.” During these years he eked out a meager living drawing postcard views of Vienna and selling them to tourists.
According to Koldehoff, Hitler had the mechanical skills to draw country scenes and church steeples, but his work lacked originality.
After World War II, American and British soldiers found many Hitler drawings in the ruins of German government buildings. Sotheby’s in London offered Hitler drawings for sale in the 1960’s. Over the years, several auctions have been conducted in England and Germany.
A Hitler sketch can fetch as little as 150 euros (around $170), or as much as 45,000 euros (around $51,600) for a large watercolor.
Nonetheless, there are widespread reports that much of the artwork attributed to Hitler consists of forgeries. Some experts estimate that such fakes constitute as much as 95 percent of the work on the market. According to Koldehoff, no one can say if a landscape that costs 45,000 euros, or other artwork, is by Hitler or by a forger. Asked how auction houses authenticate Hitler’s art, Koldehoff said they designate the work as “probably by Adolf Hitler.”
Certificates of authenticity are often obtained from questionable sources. Koldehoff said a colleague in Holland bought an unsigned drawing at a flea market, added Hitler’s signature, and sent a picture of the painting, with $39.95, to someone in the United States who claims to be a “forensic graphologist.” This graphologist sent back a certificate of authenticity. This story has not been independently verified.
Auctioneer Weidler told Germany’s public international broadcaster Deutsche Welle that the work to be auctioned on Saturday has been authenticated. “We do lighting tests, and we selected them because we believe they are by Hitler,” she said.
Last month, three watercolors attributed to Hitler were seized from the Kloss auction house in Berlin, on suspicions of forgery.
"If you walk down the Seine and see 100 artists, 80 will be better than this," Heinz-Joachim Maeder, a Kloss spokesperson, told Reuters.
He added: "The value of these objects and the media interest is because of the name at the bottom."