Is buying or selling Hitler's artwork immoral?

A collection of Hitler's art sold at an auction for more than $400,000. Though the practice is legal, moral ambiguities have left many reluctant to participate.

Daniel Karmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
The watercolor painting 'Blumenstillleben' (lit. flower still life) is seen at an auction house in Nuremberg, Germany, June 2015. The painting is attributed to Adolf Hitler and was auctioned off June 20 2015 at the auction house Weidler.

At the Weidler auction house in Nuremberg, a collection of 14 works sold for $440,000 last weekend – not for the quality of the art, but for the infamy of the artist.

The collection of drawings and watercolor paintings – dated between 1904 and 1922 and depicting castles, flowers, and nude women – was the work of Adolf Hitler. Though experts admitted the works were artistically unimpressive, Weidler said bids came in from China, France, Brazil, Germany, and the United Arab Emirates, The Guardian reported.

Specific details about the bidders are unknown, but auctioneer Katherin Weidler reportedly told German news wire Deutsche Presse-Agentur, “These collectors do not specialize in this painter, but have a general interest in high-value art.”

Controversy over the sale of Hitler's artwork is fueled by the questionable morality of profiting from the artwork of the man responsible for the Holocaust, mainly because the majority of proceeds from the sales are going to private sellers, rather than to charity.

Not that charities would likely accept the money. The auction house has said it plans on donating a portion of its 20 percent commission to charity, DPA reported. When another Hitler painting was sold last November, auction house head Herbert Weidler made a similar promise, saying that if no one accepted the donation he would give the money to a local civic preservation society, the Alstadtfreunde Nürnberg. However, that organization’s chairman “told local media that he had no intention of taking it,” according to The Guardian.

“Few in Germany want to be seen making a profit from the Nazi dictator’s work,” The Guardian reported. The Bavarian state archive, for example, does not buy Hitler’s pieces but does accept them as donations for the purpose of removing them from circulation.

Despite widespread uneasiness about the ethics of such sales, nothing in the law prohibits the sale of Hitler’s artwork. As long as the work does not contain Nazi symbols, DPA reported, Germany allows it to be sold.

Ethics in the art trade have come into the spotlight in a few other recent cases, as well. Earlier this month, two women protested the sale of Native American Hopi dolls in Paris, AP reported. One of the protesters said, "I'm against cultural genocide ... These are sacred objects that were stolen from people and should be returned to those people."

In April, 450 items were withdrawn from an auction in Lawrenceville, N.J. after public protest. The items had been crafted by interned Japanese Americans during World War II, and many had been given to historian Allen H. Eaton “for the purposes of educating the public about the Japanese American experience during World War II,” protesters claimed.

And last October, Sotheby’s faced criticism for selling an Egon Schiele painting belonging to Fritz Grunbaum, who died in the Dachau concentration camp and whose art collection was allegedly looted by Nazis.

Before Hitler became the leader of Germany’s Third Reich and one of the most infamous figures in history, it is well known that he was rejected multiple times from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He is believed to have left as many as 700 works behind by the time he committed suicide in 1945, according to the Washington Post.

While many have pointed to Hitler’s love of art as indication of a softer side, inconsistent with the one the world saw, historian Birgit Schwarz told Der Spiegel magazine in 2009 that it was all a part of his dangerously inflated self-perception.

“His love of art led directly into the heart of evil,” she said. “His fanatical pursuit of his own cause, and his self-image as a genius, contributed to his powers of persuasion and, therefore, his success.”

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