When is it okay to profit from the sale of artefacts associated with a vile regime from history? Should there be a market for items associated with Hitler and Stalin? What about their henchmen? Or their victims?
I’d not really thought about these issues until the last week when it was drawn to my attention that the Clifton auction house Dreweatts was promoting a sale of Nazi memorabilia. On 6th March they sold a silver tray which was made for Hitler’s 50th birthday. Presented to him by Speer as just one item from 6 sets of 500 pieces, someone in 2012 wanted it so much they paid £28,000. On the Dreweatts web site I can see that all sorts of German army military gear and Nazi badges were also up for sale. An SS steel helmet went for £650 and a collection of various Nazi badges for £140.
As someone who has browsed through hundreds of antique shops and fairs over the years I neither find this remarkable or particularly disturbing. While looking for old postcards (of Bristol and the Cynon Valley, which I have collected for 30 years) I always come across this stuff on other stalls. I often assumed much of it is fake tat bought by men who have an obsession with the other side’s role in World War Two.
But I’ve never seen the personal effects of victims of the holocaust on sale. That’s what startled me about lot 212, which had a guide price of £100 – 120. The description is “A Highly Emotive Third Reich Period ‘J’ Marked Deutsches Reich Reise-Pass for Hugo & Ida Leser No.330, containing a Jude armband and Star of David cloth insignia.” and pictured are the pass document, “Jude” armband and the yellow Star of David. Someone has now paid £360 for the items that were presumably stripped from Hugo and Ida before they were murdered by the Nazis.
I’ve only seen items like this twice before. Most recently was last summer while visiting the Holocaust exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum. Prior to that it was twenty years ago when I was inter-railing and visiting Eastern Europe for the first time. While visiting the Polish royal capital of Crakow I was determined to see something that, at the time, was most definitely not on the list of recommended places to visit, Oswiecim. Better known to us as Auschwitz-Birkenau. The buildings there are full of abandoned clothes, suitcases, arm bands and documents.
If people want to see these items then a museum is where you should go, not an auction house in Bristol. All the Bristol West secondary school sixth forms are sending three students on a visit to Auschwitz over the Easter holiday. Organised by the excellent Holocaust Education Trust, these visits are important to make sure that the current young generation witness at first hand the scene of the 20th century’s greatest crime against humanity.
The sale of Nazi memorabilia is banned or heavily controlled in Germany and many other European states. Most British auction houses choose not to sell it. I’m disappointed that one based in Bristol hasn’t followed their example. They clearly think there’s good money to be made exploiting the gap in this rather distasteful market. I don’t know how much money they made out of trays, helmets, badges and the memory of Hugo and Ida. But whatever it is, I’ve written to them suggesting they make a donation to the Holocaust Education Trust.
In order to provoke discussion on this issue my friend Labour MP Fabian Hamilton and I have tabled a Commons motion (No 2870) calling for the government to regulate this trade. I’ve pasted the text below. Fabian is Jewish and I am gay. So yellow stars and pink triangles have a personal resonance.
That this House deeply deplores the sale of dozens of items of Nazi memorabilia, including items of oppression belonging to Holocaust victims, which was held on 6 March 2012 by Dreweatts Auction House in Bristol;condemns other auctions of similar items which have been held by other firms previously; decries the profiteering on items promoting and glorifying hatred and violence; applauds the policies of such firms as Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams and eBay which prohibit the sale of such items; recognises that such sales are banned in France, Germany, Austria and Hungary; and calls on the Government to bring in immediate regulation and control of this abhorrent trade.
UPDATE – 20th March 2012
I’m pleased to reveal that the chairman of Dreweatts, Steffan Ludwig, has written to me to say that the firm has now decided to change its policy and will no longer be including any items associated with the holocaust in future sales of WW2 and Nazi memorabilia. Dreweatts will also be making a donation to the Holocaust Education Trust.