The Weidler auction house in Nuremberg held an unusual event last weekend. On finely carved wooden easels, auctioneers propped up 14 items, ranging from ornate watercolors of German castles to pictures of pretty flowers.
The pieces weren’t particularly good, experts admitted. Yet the batch of middling art sold as if it were masterpieces, fetching a whopping $450,000.
How to explain the outrageous price for such mediocre wares? Perhaps the six-figure sum had less to do with the artworks’ quality and more to do with the seven letters in their bottom corners.
Seventy years after Nuremberg hosted tribunals against top Nazi officials for war crimes — crimes that forced the world to promise ‘‘never again’’ — the Weidler auction house displayed a crude drawing of a naked woman sketched by none other than the fuhrer himself: Adolf Hitler.
The sale of the mass murderer’s early artwork is just the latest in a string of contentious auctions. Last year, Sotheby’s was criticized for selling an Egon Schiele piece without compensating the family from which the artwork had allegedly been stolen by Nazis. (Citing federal court decisions, Sotheby’s said there wasn’t enough evidence that the Schiele had been looted.)
In April, an auction of artwork by Japanese-Americans imprisoned in internment camps during World War II was canceled after a public outcry.
And earlier this month, a Paris auction featuring Hopi ceremonial dolls was interrupted by protesters who shouted, ‘‘You can’t sell sacred works!’’
The controversies come against a backdrop of soaring prices for auctioned artwork. In May, Pablo Picasso’s ‘‘Women of Algiers’’ became the most expensive painting ever sold at auction when an anonymous bidder dropped $179 million on it.
The sale of Hitler’s art, however, is particularly vexing.
Pictures of flower pots and nude women by a young Adolf appear grotesque in light of his later crimes, particularly the Holocaust. Fairy tale-like paintings of German castles contrast with the destruction that Hitler’s madness brought upon Germany and other countries across Europe.
At the same time, the connections between Hitler’s idealized pictures and his eventual obsession with Aryan purity are even more haunting.
Hitler spent much of his youth trying and failing to become a famous artist. Twice rejected from Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts, he nevertheless considered himself an ‘‘artistic genius,’’ according to art historian Birgit Schwarz.
‘‘His love of art led directly into the heart of evil,’’ she told Der Spiegel magazine in 2009. ‘‘His fanatical pursuit of his own cause, and his self-image as a genius, contributed to his powers of persuasion and, therefore, his success. Art was part of his life until his last hours, even playing a role in his private will, in which he mentions his collections. This was someone who issued the so-called Nero Decree [ordering the destruction of his own country lest it fall into Allied hands] while at the same time making sure art treasures were rescued. But no one is willing to admit to his obsession with art.’’
Whatever it is that collectors see in Hitler’s art, they are snapping it up at ever increasing paces and prices — often thanks to Weidler.
Last year, the auction house sold a Hitler watercolor of Munich’s town hall for almost $150,000. At the time, Weidler defended the sale as that of ‘‘historical documents,’’ according to the Guardian. In 2009, a British auction house sold 15 of the fuhrer’s flops for $155,000.
Despite the long shadow of Hitler’s crimes in Germany, it is legal to sell his artwork as long as it contains no Nazi symbols. But their sale is nonetheless ‘‘highly controversial as 80 percent of the proceeds go to private sellers rather than a good cause,’’ according to German news wire DPA.
Adding to the local debate over the auction is the recent decision to begin reprinting Hitler’s anti-Semitic manifesto, ‘‘Mein Kampf.’’
‘‘I am absolutely against the publication of ‘Mein Kampf,’ even with annotations. Can you annotate the Devil? Can you annotate a person like Hitler?’’ Levi Salomon, spokesman for the Berlin-based Jewish Forum for Democracy and Against Anti-Semitism, told The Washington Post in February. ‘‘This book is outside of human logic.’’
Which raises the question: Can anything good come of selling Hitler’s paintings?
‘‘Few in Germany want to be seen making a profit from the Nazi dictator’s work,’’ the Guardian reported. ‘‘The Bavarian state archive, which owns some of Hitler’s work, has a policy of not paying for the works, but accepts them as donations in order to take them out of circulation.’’
British paper the Independent didn’t hide its disgust at this weekend’s auction, calling Hitler’s version of the famous Bavarian castle Neuschwanstein an ‘‘insipid . . . chocolate box scene.’’
‘‘There is a worryingly buoyant trade in paintings by Hitler despite them being deemed to have little artistic merit,’’ the newspaper wrote.
Hitler is believed to have left behind as many as 700 of his artworks when he ingested cyanide and shot himself in a Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945. There are also many forgeries, according to Schwarz, the art historian. ‘‘Since Hitler had no style of his own as a painter, but generally just copied, it is very difficult to be sure what is by Hitler,’’ she told Die Welt.
Whether Hitler’s paintings have style or artistic merit, Weidler apparently had little difficulty selling them this weekend. The auction house said investors in China, France, Brazil, Germany and the United Arab Emirates all bid for the pieces.
Weidler added that complaints should be addressed to the sellers, not the auction house, and that a portion of its 20 percent commission will go toward charity, according to DPA.
But if recent history is any guide, giving away funds tied to the fuhrer won’t be easy. Last year, Weidler announced that it intended to give a share of its commission for selling Hitler’s Munich town hall painting to a local preservation society, Altstadtfreunde Nürnberg ("Friends of the old city of Nuremberg").
‘‘The chairman of the society, Karl-Heinz Enderle, immediately expressed surprise at the presumption that he would accept the donation,’’ the Guardian reported, ‘‘and told local media that he had no intention of taking it.’’