‘It’s very bad art’: how the booming market in Hitler’s atrocious paintings inspired a new play

Neuschwanstein Castle, a watercolor signed A Hitler
Neuschwanstein Castle, a watercolor signed A Hitler - AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOF STACHE

“What do I know? I’m not an art critic,” says Patrick Marber, the playwright and director. “But I wouldn’t put it on my wall.”

We are discussing a body of work by a young artist active in Vienna before the First World War. At first, his pictures seem unremarkable: mountain vistas, landscapes with church spires, a view of the grand opera house on the Ringstrasse in the Austrian capital. Conventional and amateurish, certainly, but inoffensive.

Then, you notice his signature: A Hitler.

Before he became a genocidal dictator, Adolf Hitler was an impoverished, sallow youth, drifting around Vienna – where he’d moved, in 1908, at the age of 18 – with dreams of becoming an artist. Twice, he was rejected by the city’s Academy of Fine Arts, yet this provincial German nationalist – who, by 1909, was sleeping under bridges and in homeless shelters – persisted with a brush, making small watercolour views of Vienna on postcards that a friend flogged for a pittance.

The discovery of one such street scene, from c1912, is, explains Marber, the “inciting incident” of Nachtland, a new satire by Marius von Mayenburg, directed by Marber for the Young Vic, set in present-day Germany.

Nachtland is a new play satirising the discovery of a painting by Hitler
Nachtland is a new play satirising the discovery of a painting by Hitler - Sebastian Nevols

What should a pair of siblings who find this toxic artwork in their late father’s attic do with it? Keep it – or, as the dead man’s daughter-in-law suggests, set it alight? “That painting is the starting point for a series of arguments about whether we can separate the creator from his or her creation – which is a very hot topic,” Marber says. “It’s eternally complicated.”

Of course, there is a third option: put it up for sale. In recent years, paintings attributed to Hitler have appeared on the market with increasing frequency. In 2014, a buyer reportedly from the Middle East paid €130,000 (£103,000) for a view of Munich’s town hall attributed to Hitler that was offered by Nuremberg’s Weidler auction house. The following year, Weidler sold 14 more such paintings and drawings for almost €400,000 (£286,000) – including a watercolour of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria that fetched the highest price of €100,000 (£71,000), and went to an anonymous Chinese buyer. Paintings attributed to Hitler have been auctioned in Britain, too.

Given that aesthetic quality is hardly the main determinant of their value, what is driving this “shadow-market”, as it’s described by the art historian Christian Fuhrmeister, of Munich’s Central Institute of Art History, who specialises in this area? Who is buying Hitler’s art – and why? And should such sales be banned?

Hitler photographed in a crowd listening to Austria's declaration of war in August 1914, Vienna
Hitler photographed in a crowd listening to Austria's declaration of war in August 1914, Vienna - Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

If the market in Hitler’s paintings is murky, that’s because there is very little reliable data about them. In the 1980s, a little-known American collector of them, Billy F Price, published Adolf Hitler: The Unknown Artist, which purported to be a catalogue raisonné. Yet, while some people still refer to it, it has long been discredited for including misattributions and fakes – including a nude watercolour of Hitler’s niece, Geli Raubal, possibly by the forger Konrad Kujau, who, in the early 1980s, faked Hitler’s diaries.

Most of Hitler’s paintings, moreover, are hidden away in private collections, where they cannot be studied by scholars to establish the characteristics of his hand. As for the oft-repeated estimate that Hitler produced between 2,000 and 3,000 artworks during his lifetime, it is surely incorrect, since most of his paintings date from before the First World War (he left Vienna for Munich in 1913); to reach such a tally, he would have been improbably prolific. A more realistic total, says Fuhrmeister, is around 400 works on paper.

The only thing on which experts agree is that, artistically, Hitler was a non-entity. He aspired to paint like the exquisite 19th-century watercolourist Rudolf von Alt but lacked the skill. The people in his compositions appear awkward; and although, initially, some of his pictures can seem competent, their style is anonymous and bland – reflecting the fact that he often copied from a small book of city views distributed in 1908 to commemorate Emperor Franz Joseph’s 60th birthday. “It’s trad stuff,” says Marber, who points out that the young Hitler was hardly excited by contemporaneous developments in avant-garde Viennese art by the likes of Gustav Klimt. “If you saw it on the Bayswater Road, it would fit in nicely.”

Items in the 2015 Hitler collection sold by a Nuremberg auction house
Items in the 2015 Hitler collection sold by a Nuremberg auction house - CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP via Getty Images

Deborah Rothschild, who curated an exhibition examining Hitler’s early years in Vienna, held at the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts in 2002, agrees. His paintings, she tells me, are “very mundane, very old-fashioned” – and, she adds, “once he became the Führer [and] they became valuable, he disclaimed them.” Why? She laughs. “Because they’re embarrassing … It reminds me of that Hannah Arendt quote about ‘the banality of evil’ … They don’t carry any message of anti-Semitism or racism; they’re just scenes. Just nothing.”

As a result, they’re easily forged. “It’s much harder to duplicate, say, a Mondrian or a Malevich – but, with Hitler, it’s an invitation to print money,” says Fuhrmeister, who, like fellow art historian Stephan Klingen, receives an email every few weeks from someone who claims to own a watercolour by Hitler. “We get very bad photos of very bad paintings,” adds Klingen, bluntly. “If you had a grandfather who tried to be a painter, this is not interesting for the world. But if you write ‘Hitler’ under these paintings, they become interesting – for the market.” According to one estimate, 98 per cent of Hitler’s paintings that appear for sale are fakes.

Although Weidler did not respond to my request for comment, and the biggest and most reputable auction houses don’t touch this material with a bargepole, some auctioneers are willing to defend their right to trade in Hitler’s paintings. Bill Panagopulos is president of Alexander Historical Auctions in Maryland, which, in 2022, sold a wristwatch, engraved with the initials “AH”, which once belonged to Hitler, for $1.1 million (£900,000).

Painting titled Tank Battleground by Adolf Hitler, dated 1916
Painting titled Tank Battleground by Adolf Hitler, dated 1916 - Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Over the years, this son of a Greek emigrant (whose home town, Kalavryta, was the site of a massacre committed by the Nazis in 1943) has sold “five or six” paintings by Hitler (as well as, he tells me, Hitler’s toilet seat, for $19,000 [£14,000], “as preposterous as that is”). One postcard, he tells me, was “indisputably real”, thanks to the presence, on the back, of a wartime date; another picture had “excellent provenance”, and came “from the family of an SS man who stole it out of the Berghof”, Hitler’s mountain retreat. Panagopulos has also sold artefacts linked to Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot. “The worst thing you can do is forget these cretins,” he says.

He rejects a “common misconception” that collectors of Hitler’s paintings support the far Right: “Neo-Nazis are too stupid and too poor to buy this material. They don’t want a period Nazi flag; they want a new one that they can march down the street with, and p-ss everybody off.”

Rather, he continues, those who buy Hitler’s art are “the same people who collect Confederate cannons, or lunchboxes, or stamps: it’s just a collector mentality… People love curiosities.” Coveting a painting by Hitler is akin to, say, hankering after his top hat, or Hermann Göring’s silk underwear – both of which have also come up at auction within the past decade.

“There is an endless titillation among private collectors who want to luxuriate in coming face-to-face with evil,” says Marc Cave, the director of the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Nottinghamshire, who hopes to expose “the inadequacies of the people who like this stuff”. Cave feels uncomfortable about presenting Nazi memorabilia in museums – for fear, he says, that “it becomes titillation for the neo-fascists”. But he would never ban the sale or display of Hitler’s art. “I’d rather provoke a conversation… [and] belittle it,” he tells me, by, for instance, inviting a contemporary artist to draw or paint over it. “Construction through destruction, perhaps,” he says.

‘Hitler’s paintings are very mundane, very old-fashioned. As Führer, he disclaimed them’
‘Hitler’s paintings are very mundane, very old-fashioned. As Führer, he disclaimed them’ - Keystone/Getty Images

In 2008, that’s exactly what the British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman did. Having acquired 13 watercolours attributed to Hitler, the brothers “reclaimed” them by adding drawings of rainbows, flowers, and other hippyish motifs, before exhibiting the results at London’s White Cube gallery.

Although, as Jake once recalled, they received “criticism… from all sides” for their “defacement” of “original works” with “sacred historical value”, he tells me now: “We worked on the drawings in an intelligent and meaningful way.” The idea was, he explains, to “rectify” every one of these “flat, banal, unremarkable” and “soulless” works of art that “we could get our mitts on”, by adding “anything pretty and demeaning to the Teutonic aesthetic” in order “to make the f---er turn in his grave.”

In Nachtland, when a character proposes that the painting in the attic should be destroyed, the response is: “Only Nazis burn art.” “But then it becomes a conversation about, well, yeah, but this isn’t art: it’s rubbish,” Marber says. For Jake Chapman, banning or burning any art, no matter how abysmal, is “a slippery slope”. Instead, “maybe painting rainbows and flowers over Hitler’s work is the kind of punishment that best cuts to an artist’s heart”.

Nachtland is at the Young Vic, London SE1, until April 20. Info: youngvic.org