Nazi Memorabilia at Auction: Spoils of War or Symbols of Hate?

Unlike stamps and coins, Nazi memorabilia is not the most common collectible.  Some would argue that it is not a collectible at all.  Although perhaps not the most common of collections, Nazi memorabilia is highly collectible and often brings high prices when brought to auction.

Adolf Hitler alarm clock

Alarm clock depicting German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and swastikas. Made in the United States for the American Bund. Sold by Quinn’s Auction Galleries.

Today, I had a walk-in consignor with a rather peculiar item.  Unlike my normal military collectibles, it was not a grouping of medals or a bayonet or a flag.  Instead, it was an alarm clock, an item that would generally be seen as ubiquitous and would not even meet the criteria of our lower to mid-range weekly auctions.  But this alarm clock made in the 1930s depicted Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in profile as well as swastikas at the quarter hour marks.  Perhaps most interestingly (disturbingly?), the little clock was made in the United States by Ingraham, a well-known clock manufacturer better known for their mantle clocks than any pro-Nazi merchandise.Defining Nazi memorabilia can be a challenge.  Nazi memorabilia, also referred to as Third Reich militaria, can be defined as items pertaining to the Nazi party or the Waffen-SS or, more widely, items that depict Adolf Hitler, swastikas, or a host of other Nazi iconography. These items include the more common like flags, banners, military uniforms, pins, badges, daggers, guns, posters, books, coins, and stamps as well as the more unusual items like alarm clocks, wristwatches, jewelry, and ash trays. These are all of varying value from a copy of Mein Kampf would likely fetch little to a Nazi armband which sold for $70 to German WWII Waffen-SS assault gunner uniform sold by Mohawk Arms Inc in 2011 for $6,000.

As I said before, not everyone agrees with private collections of Nazi merchandise.  Most people agree that items should be stored and possibly displayed in a museum situation, there is no such consensus when it comes to private sale and purchase of Nazi paraphernalia.  For example, entire countries including France, Germany, Austria and Italy have banned the sale of Nazi items and are willing to prosecute those who fail to comply. Private individuals have met scrutiny as well with some high-profile cases like, Marc Garlasco, a member of Human Rights Watch who was criticized for his collection fo Nazi memorabilia in 2009.  Though he had never held anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi views, he was criticized for his personal fascination with Nazi “stuff.”

Adolf Hitler PosterThe people who collect Nazi memorabilia vary as do their reasons for collecting it.  Marc Garlasco defended himself in an open letter on the Huffington Post saying, “I’m a military geek, with an abiding interest not only in the medals I collect but in the weapons that I study and the shrapnel I analyze.”  His sentiments are similar to many who collect.  In addition to “military geeks,” there are social historians, gun and weapons collectors, and even museums that purchase these items as part of a larger collection of World War II material culture. But even then, some people think of Nazi items as “off limits” collectibles. Even Ebay does not allow Nazi-related items to be sold (with the exception of coins and stamps).

So if you can’t sell them anonymously online, what do you when these items fall into your hands? Some people turn to auction houses.

As the population ages, more and more people are inheriting these items as those who fought in World War II (and their children) continue to pass away. Many of the items owned by people in the United States were brought back as legal loot. Many objects even have accompanying documentation that states when and by whom it was brought into the country. Such documents add to the provenance of an item.

Some people seem hesitant about selling their items and are worried they will “end up in the wrong hands.” For them, I share this story. After my last militaria sale, I was surprised to be approached by my boss about a passed lot (or item that did not sell for the asking price). It was a 9 foot by 14 1/2 foot Nazi garrison flag which would have been hung from a wall at a military installation or Nazi Party building. He had been approached by someone with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum who wondered if the flag was still available since they had been searching for one for an exhibition. Rather than ending up in the wrong hands, the flag would be used to teach the tens of thousands of yearly museum visitors about an important era of history.

A more common scenario is that the Nazi memorabilia put up for sale goes to a private collector who is interested in the time period for one reason or another. In an article on Collector’s Weekly, Stanislav Vysotsky who teaches sociology at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, and has written extensively about contemporary hate groups says, “If you have people who are history aficionados, then you’re talking about people who are collecting these items for historical purposes, as symbols of a reprehensible regime that was defeated and discredited.”  Rather than collecting items out of reverence for the Nazi mission, these collectors understand and are instead fascinated by the now-defunct historical group.

World War II SS decal helmet. Sold Dreweatts Bristol Auction Rooms in November 2012 for £1,200.

World War II SS decal helmet. Sold at Dreweatts Bristol Auction Rooms in November 2012 for £1,200. LiveAuctioneers.com

The sometimes-disturbing reality of Nazi items can be the high prices that the items yield.  This reality makes the disposal of historical Nazi memorabilia even more difficult for those who inherit it.  Though they may want to donate the items to a museum as described above, they are often dealing with a host of expenses related to the death of a loved one, and donation may not be an option.  In that case, selling the items at auction may be an appropriate solution.  Be sure to research the auction house beforehand or call and ask if they have a policy regarding Nazi merchandise.  Often, these items are sold in the context of a larger military collectibles auction.  Do your research to see if that is a specialty of the auction house.Because Nazi militaria spans such a wide range of items, determining value can be difficult. Auction houses can be especially helpful in this regard as they are a “no judgment zone” in many ways. Personally, as a historian as well as an auction professional, I am always very interested when people bring in these items because they are often associated with interesting stories of family members at war abroad. In addition, I have met many of the people (mostly “military geeks”) who buy the items, and I am able to learn from their genuine historical interest.

With the continued academic and popular interest in World War II, Nazi memorabilia will no doubt continue to bring high prices at auction.

Do you or someone you know collect Nazi memorabilia? Why? Share your story in the comments below!

Collectible Spotlight is a weekly series that features a variety of items that you may own, inherit, or collect with some easy tips to help you determine their value. Want to see an item featured? Feel free to message us with ideas!

 

About Rebecca McCormick
Rebecca H. McCormick is working on her MA in History of Decorative Arts. She is a Collector’s Series Auction cataloger at Quinn’s Auction Galleries. She has worked at the Texas Historical Commission and The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. She received her BA in History and Art History from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She lives in Vienna, Virginia with her husband and their two cats.

One thought on “Nazi Memorabilia at Auction: Spoils of War or Symbols of Hate?

  1. I see no reason to think what I have collected for over the past 40 years is odd or any way should be keep’t at a place less then it’s very own place in the log of human history…..I have built a museum around this time to keep alive the history of this Sad part of Human History…And I try to find all that I can to aid me in telling this story…