Explained: Why German police have seized ‘fake’ Hitler watercolours

German police seized three watercolours presented as works of Adolf Hitler before they were due for auction Thursday in Berlin, claiming they could be fakes.

Explained: Why German police have seized 'fake' Hitler watercolours
Hitler in the Reichstag on May 4th, 1941. Photo: Deutsches Bundesarchiv/WikiCommons

The Alpine and Rhenish landscapes, which depict a mountain scene, a river and a distant figure sitting beneath a tree, were dated 1910 and 1911 and were signed: A. Hitler. They were offered by the Kloss auction house.

Berlin police tweeted they had opened an inquiry into “attempted fraud” and “falsification of documents”.

The Berlin police tweet stating that they had seized three watercolours allegedly painted by Hitler from the auction house in the Pankow district of Berlin.

The starting price was €4,000 per painting, and each carried a seal of approval by an expert attesting their authenticity.

The Nazi dictator, who committed some of the worst crimes in history, tried to enrol in the Vienna Academy of Arts twice as a young man but was rejected for lack of talent. He continued painting, however, and copied landscapes from post cards which he sold to tourists.

A 2015 auction of Hitler watercolours and drawings in Nuremberg fetched nearly €400,000 euros.  A painting of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria fetched the highest price in the lot, selling for €100,000.

An example of work said to be painted by Hitler. This is the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria auctioned off in 2015. Photo: DPA

'Highly questionable'

German daily Welt reported that the paintings that were being auctioned in Berlin are “highly questionable” for several reasons.

The Rhine landscape is said to have been painted by Hitler in 1911. However, it is thought that Hitler visited the Rhine for the first time on October 22nd, 1914.

From the end of 1909 until the beginning of World War I in 1914, Hitler earned his living by selling watercolours and drawings, first in Vienna, then in Munich in 1913. They mostly showed local sights, sometimes landscapes, rarely still lifes.

The pictures have an average artistic quality – they were often copied from postcards. Hitler initially sold his work through his one-time business partner Reinhold Hanisch, primarily to art dealers, later also to stationary art galleries and frame dealers in Vienna.

It is unclear how many paintings Hitler produced and how much money he made. He was able to afford modest accommodation in various men's hostels, as well as regular visits to operas and operettas, although mostly in the cheapest standing areas.

There are estimates that Hitler may have made more than 2000 watercolors and drawings between the end of 1909 and the beginning of his career as a politician. The vast majority of them are said to have been created during the four and a half years he spent in Vienna and Munich, a few dozen more later while he served in World War I. Hitler was stationed with the Bavarian Army in occupied north-eastern France and in Belgium.

That would mean, however, that at least in Vienna and Munich he would have to have painted a whole, finished picture every day. This seems unlikely as the dictator would have had to work very regularly and efficiently – characteristics that were never typical traits of his, commented Welt.

An example of a signature on the artwork “Nelkenstrauß” which is attributed to Adolf Hitler. It was auctioned off in Nuremberg on 12th June 2015. Photo: DPA

Doubts raised

An extensive catalogee of work attributed to Hitler has been unearthed in recent times. Billy F. Price, a Texan businessman, has collected more than 750 of Hitler's paintings and has provided information on numerous other allegedly genuine Hitler pictures.

In order to check whether watercolours attributed to Hitler actually originate from him, art historical criteria isn't so helpful. The dictator was merely a moderately gifted copyist without his own style. Furthermore, in the 1920s and early 1930s his former business partner Hanisch eagerly produced pictures similar to Hitler's and signed them with the name of the man, who was at that point a prominent party leader.

The signatures also raise doubts about the authenticity of the pictures that were being auctioned in Berlin. The name “A. Hitler” can be seen on two of the three watercolours. However, it's not written in a fluid movement, as you would expect from a painter.

Meanwhile, the signatures on the artwork arguably look different from Hitler's real signatures before 1914, however very few signatures have survived from this time.

They also do not match his handwriting. Again, there are relatively few excerpts of Hitler's handwriting that can be identified as belonging to him beyond doubt.

It's fair to say that compared to other signatures on pictures attributed to Hitler, they differ very much.

In Germany, it is reportedly legal to sell paintings by Hitler so long as they do not contain Nazi symbols.

The police probe into the authenticity of the paintings in Berlin is continuing.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Neglected Austrian creator of ‘Bambi’ celebrated in Vienna show

While the 1942 Disney film "Bambi" is world famous as a classic of animated cinema, the man behind the story -- an eminent writer in pre-war Vienna who had to flee the Nazis -- is little known.

Neglected Austrian creator of 'Bambi' celebrated in Vienna show
Various translations of the iconic tale "Bambi: A Life In The Woods" by Felix Salten are seen on display at the City Hall Library in Vienna on March 23, 2021. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Felix Salten was a product of the cultural blossoming in the capital of the then Austro-Hungarian empire around the turn of the 20th Century.

As a Vienna exhibition which shines a spotlight on the neglected creator shows, he was a prolific writer who moved in the same circles as the likes of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.

Salten wrote the iconic and poignant tale of the fawn bereaved of his mother by hunters in 1922 under the title “Bambi: A Life In The Woods”.

READ MORE: How Austria’s newest citizens reclaimed a birthright stolen by the Nazis

On its publication the following year, it did not enjoy immediate success among the reading public.

However, in the 1930s, Salten — himself a hunter — sold the film rights for the text for $1,000 to an American producer, who in turn sold them to Disney.

As for the book itself, “Felix Salten changed publishers and from then on it became much more successful,” said Ursula Storch, curator of the exhibition at the Wien Museum dedicated to the city’s history.

“Of course it was made even more famous by the film adaptation in 1942,” Storch told AFP.

But by then, “Bambi”, along with the rest of Salten’s work, had been banned because he was Jewish, first in Germany and then in Austria after Hitler’s annexation of the country in 1938. 

Literary ‘chameleon’

The film’s success, however, was enough to give rise to numerous retellings of the story. Storch says that while Salten himself never offered a commentary on the meaning of the book, it is a powerful evocation of the dark side of human nature and the relationship between humans and the environment.

“It’s a book which is deeply anchored in its time and is much more than a simple children’s story about the loss of one’s mother,” said philosopher Maxime Rovere, author of the preface to a new French edition.

Given “the impression of fear, the way the animals must constantly escape,” Rovere says it is “impossible not to make the link with (Salten’s) personal experience”, living as he did through an era of rising anti-Semitism.

But as the exhibition makes clear, there is much more to the work of Salten than “Bambi”. Born in 1869 in Budapest, he and his family moved to the imperial capital the following year.

At around the age of 20, he began a career as a journalist, which remained his staple source of income for around 50 years, according to Marcel Atze, head of the manuscripts department at Vienna City Library.

However, Salten’s oeuvre of some 50 books spans opera librettos, poetry, art criticism, film scripts and even a pornographic novel under the title of “Josefine Mutzenbacher”.

He won a reputation as a versatile literary “chameleon”.

Storch says that his social life was no less notable, with Freud and composer Richard Strauss among his acquaintances.

But the Anschluss shattered that world, with Salten later writing of his “contempt for the Viennese and for Austrians in general” after many of them joyfully welcomed Hitler’s takeover of their country.

His diaries record an ever-growing anxiety.

“His writings are very moving,” Atze, who spent several weeks poring over the journals with colleagues, said. “When you read them you can absolutely imagine what was happening,” he added. 

‘Feeling of redemption’

Atze says that only a few such documents survive from this tumultuous period, making Salten “an unbelievably valuable witness”.

In March 1939, Salten fled to Switzerland, taking with him a library comprising thousands of volumes.

Two years later, the Nazis stripped him of his nationality.

Atze notes that this news is written in red in Salten’s diary instead of the usual blue or black and that the attendant possibility of being deported from Switzerland as a stateless individual must have left him “trembling” until his death in 1945.

His Swiss granddaughter Lea Wyler never knew him personally but says that accounts handed down through the family tell of a “broken man” marked by successive tragedies.

“He had lost his only son in a car accident, he lost his home, Vienna, friends,” she told AFP by phone.

She laments the fact that out of work left by her “loving, humorous, cheeky” grandfather, only “Bambi” is remembered — and that the Disney adaptation has eclipsed the original.

“The crazy thing is that everybody thinks that Disney wrote it. He did not even get that credit, that is really annoying,” she said.

Nevertheless, Wyler adds the fact that Vienna is now celebrating Salten has brought “a feeling of redemption”.