Collectible or unacceptable? Auction of Nazi memorabilia part of debate
When he returned from World War II, Steven Wasser's father brought home a knife he took off an SS captain who commanded a German tank.
Wasser's family keeps the relic in a safety deposit box, and when the time comes, he hopes to donate it to a museum.
But, the president of the Jewish Federation of Dutchess County also understands there may be reasons why someone decides to sell items linked to the Nazi regime.
"What if the person who is selling this is Jewish and desperately needs the money?" Wasser said.
Though it may raise eyebrows, it's not uncommon to find items linked to World War II, or other historic time periods in which basic human rights were abused, for sale through reputable channels across the country.
Some of the items originate from veterans who may have brought them back as souvenirs, or family to whom they were bequeathed.
Such transactions, conducted at auctions, collectors shops and shows, are often met with public resistance from those who believe the selling of such items may embolden and perpetuate anti-Semitism and white supremacists.
But, collectors argue the pieces are part of our history, for better or worse. The fascination with the relics, especially those of the German military, is separate from the ideology they espouse. And some advocates say there are ways such deals can be made that maintains respect for those impacted.
The debate is decades old. But, in recent years, it's come to the Hudson Valley.
Absolute Auction & Realty, headquartered in Pleasant Valley, has been holding auctions over the past few years facilitating the sale of items such as rings and medals embossedwith the swastika, German identification cards and a photograph of Adolf Hitler.
Its current auction, ending Wednesday, includes a Holocaust-period hand stamp from the Prague ghetto, among other pieces.
Wasser doesn't fault the act of selling Nazi memorabilia privately. What he and others find blameworthy is the selling of such items in a public forum.
"I think it's disrespectful to the Jewish community and basically to all humanity," said Wasser, a semi-retired businessman.
Tibor Spitz, a Kingston resident and a survivor of the Holocaust, took a more personal and definitive stance.
"My opinion is that any propaganda or memories of the Nazi era is celebrating mass murder," he said. Jews who fled the Nazi-occupied Europe didn't take anything with them, he said, noting many of their homes and places of business were looted.
The Jewish Federation of Dutchess County doesn't have a policy on this issue and neither Spitz nor Wasser had heard of the Pleasant Valley auction until it was brought to their attention by the Journal.
Absolute Auction & Realty did not respond to the Journal's requests for an interview.
Disposing of historically significant items can be challenging. Museums are selective in what they will take, which is why many will go to dealers and auctions. And now, because of COVID-19, many of these sales and auctions are happening online, bringing in a new audience.
The hobby can be an expensive one which has lead to a flood of forgeries and fakes, especially at auctions where authenticity isn't guaranteed.
"I collect Native American stone tools and I collect old fountain pens and I collect items from the Soviet Union, and nobody is looking at my items from the Soviet Union and calling me a communist. But for whatever reason, there's this idea that if you collect Nazi items that you must be a Nazi sympathizer," said Chris Pittman, a resident of Attleboro, Massachusetts.
The buying and selling of history
Search "Nazi memorabilia" on Amazon.com and you can find an array of stamps and coins. Ebay has a policy that prohibits the sale of Nazi and Holocaust-related items, even reproductions, but does allow for the sale of stamps, currency and "Historical and religious items that bear a swastika if they are made before 1933 and are not related to Nazism."
A couple of years ago, Bill Shea was concerned that the customer base for his WWII military memorabilia business was shrinking. The average buyer was in his 50s and not a lot of young people were interested in history or collecting.
That changed in 2020. The Ruptured Duck, located in Hubbardston, Massachusetts and named after a WWII insignia, saw a bump in business of about 5% because most in-person collectors shows were canceled and all sales went online.
Shea, a Hubbardston resident, doesn't ask for demographic information of customers. But, the retired history teacher and trustee for The International Museum of World War II learns a lot about his customers from phone conversations and emails.
His customers span the globe and cover the economic spectrum from blue-collar workers to a supreme court judge. He doesn't believe his business attracts neo-Nazis or white supremacists.
"They can't afford it or don't want it," Shea said. "They are not buying from me. You get to know your customers, and if there was any leaning, it comes out in conversations. I've been doing this for 60-plus years."
Collectors say the WWII memorabilia is a highly attractive collection because of its history and a curiosity about the stories these items tell. Sales for such items get a boost after movie and television releases, such as "Band of Brothers" or video games based in the time period.
Authentic German army memorabilia is especially sought after because of its rarity, and also the "regalia" of the uniforms. Serious collectors tend to differentiate between the German army and the Nazi ideology.
Richard Alba, a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of CUNY, is concerned that the selling and buying of Nazi memorabilia will lead to the preservation and passing down of an ideology.
"The sale of Nazi memorabilia becomes controversial because they are not just objects, they also have meaning, and those meanings are rightly controversial, if not outright stigmatized," Alba said.
The professor was also part of a New York City commission that reviewed controversial monuments, including those of Christopher Columbus. He sympathized with Italian Americans defending statues and saw the figure as one that had both a positive and negative side.
The auction block
Absolute Auction & Realty offers a variety of goods, such as antiques, real estate, motorcycles, bucket trucks, designer clothing and historical artifacts. It describes itself as "a center for the sale of absolutely everything."
Auction houses facilitate the sale of items that come to them through antique and estate consignment, delinquent storage units or surplus stores.
In recent years, the Pleasant Valley auction house focused its attention on "specialty collections." On its website, it states "AAR welcomes anyone thinking of selling their lifetime collection."
Known at both the state and national level, the majority of upcoming auctions listed on its site have to do with vehicles and tax-foreclosed real estate. However, in the past few year the number auctions for Nazi memorabilia has increased.
The site has sold roughly 60 Holocaust-related items, including armbands, handstamps, an anti-Semitic cigarette case and a little girl's dress with a Star of David patch that was said to have been on display at the Holocaust Museum in Ukraine.
The site in the past also auctioned a worn out, black and white striped hat from the "Ravensbruck" concentration camp, inmate No. 17750. The listing stated the item was not authenticated, and sold for $425.
"There are a lot of museums who look for sales like this for these items, and of course, other people do as well, but it is a place oftentimes where museums will find their assets," said Hannes Combest, chief executive officer of National Auctioneers Association. Whereas individual can sell these items on their own, auction houses are usually able to target buyers more effectively.
Auction houses tend not to authenticate their items, or provide certification of origin for the items on the auction block.
"The majority of the stuff that I looked at was fake, and some of it was fantasy stuff, you know, not even like a replica of anything that actually existed at the time," Pittman said, after taking a look at some of the items posted in the ongoing auction.
Those who specialize in selling WWII items call unauthentic items the "Achilles heel" of the business, but something that has been going on for decades. Its audience are predominantly individuals who can't afford the real items, armature collectors and reenactors.
Differentiating between relics
Shea draws the line at buying or dealing in items that are directly linked to the Holocaust.
"I have a great deal of empathy for that time period and the tragedies that took place and so we will always refer (sellers) to a holocaust center to make that contact," he said.
Pittman has been collecting seriously for 20 years, with a focus on German uniforms. He has a room dedicated to his collection of uniforms, helmets, hats, documents, letters written by soldiers, toothbrushes, food cans and even typewriters. Historians interested in specific topics will contact him regarding the collection.
Some of his items have even come from museums through what's known as deaccessioning, when an object is removed from a museum. This happens when museums go out of business or need to make room.
"There's an arbitrary line between military Holocaust memorabilia, because an item like a belt buckle might have been worn by a soldier that had a desk job or had been a participant in the Holocaust," Pittman said, adding that he would collect Holocaust items, but such memorabilia is rare and very expensive.
Collectors of German army memorabilia tend to differentiate between the military and the political arm of the Nazi regime, though the swastika can be found on almost everything.
"I think its business. Business tends to be, and there are exceptions, but it tends to be apolitical. Ethics and morality for some businesses are important, but for other businesses, its not," Wasser said.
Saba Ali: Sali1@poughkeepsiejournal.com, 845-451-4518.