When talking to journalists, antiques dealers of valuable Nazi memorabilia tend to play down their moneymaking interests and truck heavily in concepts like “preserving history.” But as selling prices for Hitler’s hat, brown shirt, or original signed copy of Mein Kampf bubble into the tens or hundreds of thousands of Euros, “preserving history” can look, to the casual observer, at least, a lot more like the lead-up to a Silicon Valley IPO than an intellectual pursuit for the public good.
This past Saturday, the Thies auction house, a military memorabilia trading post in the southern German town of Kirchheim unter Teck, staged an auction of what it called “the most important pieces of WWII memorabilia still in existence today!” Hundreds of Nazi-owned objects changed hands, like swastika flags and pennants (perfect for a dorm room!), visor caps, Iron Cross medals, revolvers, trench coats, and shirts once worn by leaders of the Third Reich, including many by Hitler himself.
Perhaps the most notable seller, surprisingly, was a 48-year-old Marine Corps veteran from California named Craig Gottlieb. An author and reality TV personality on Pawn Stars and History Hunters, Gottlieb sold a small fortune worth of Nazi “militaria” from his own collection, while he followed the auction online from his home in San Diego County. Gottlieb, it should be noted, is proudly Jewish, but was raised “very very casually” in the faith and is not religious.
“I don’t exclusively deal in evil,” Gottlieb pointed out in a phone interview ahead of the auction. Indeed, he told me he once sold a gavel used during the Nuremberg Trials. “It’s extraordinary,” he said. “It did more than all the weapons in the world ever could.”
Gottlieb has a reputation as a swashbuckling antiques trader who’s willing to go where others won’t. Sometimes he pushes a bit too far. A show called Battlefield Recovery meant for the National Geographic channel was canceled in 2016 before airing a single episode; the plan was to feature Gottlieb and three amateur artifact hunters with metal detectors exploring Eastern Europe battlefields for buried war treasures. Critics called them “grave robbers,” and a promotional shot showed a cast member “wrenching a bone out of the ground,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek. When criticized for, among other things, what one archaeologist called the most “casual and improper attitude” toward human remains he had ever seen, Gottlieb told Bloomberg, “we were doing battlefield recovery, not archaeology.”
Gottlieb says his fascination with war memorabilia began at age seven when his dad, a WWII veteran, gave him a bayonet he brought back from Europe. The artifacts for sale Saturday were purchased in 2014 from a collector he had known for many years. He paid “more money than I have,” he told Fox News at the time — in the “seven figures” — but wouldn’t say exactly how much. “I’m intentionally vague about the purchase price.”
“I recognized an opportunity to connect with the unique history associated with these,” Gottlieb told me. “To do my part to preserve them, make a little bit of money, and move them on. It’s my time to sell. My hope is that it ends here.” He’s heard many of the criticisms about dealing in Nazi artifacts before. “It’s understandable why someone might be creeped out by this,” he said. But the creepiness is part of the point; Gottlieb believes there is something “spiritual” about holding a Nazi artifact like a hat once worn by the world’s most notorious genocidal maniac. It’s a “connection to evil that should get you going.”
It’s not difficult to imagine who else might get themselves going with the wrong sort of “connection to evil.” With radical right-wing movements bleeding into mainstream politcs in the U.S. and Europe, it might seem a little twisted to blindly offer up Nazi memorabilia to the highest bidder. Rather than allowing Nazi artifacts to sit in the private collection of someone who might, say, attend white supremacist rallies in their spare time, it’s important to place objects in context “as an educational device,” said Seth Brysk of the Anti-Defamation League. Otherwise, they might end up someplace dangerous.
Fringe loyalists of the Neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer have been known to flaunt their “Nazi paraphernalia” at bars. Marchers at the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville decorated themselves with Nazi Eagle shields, swastika (and Confederate) flags, sewn-on Nazi patches, Iron Cross helmets and other fascist and white supremacist symbols. Across Europe, “Far-right fashion,” such as T-shirts sporting the number “88,” numerological code meaning “Heil Hitler,” has become a multi-million dollar industry (although further east, the word “Hitler” is emblazoned on things seemingly without rhyme or reason).
Ebay and other U.S. auction houses have forbidden the sale of explicitly Nazi items, and Germany has gone a step further: “Disseminating propaganda of unconstitutional organizations” is verboten by law. But there is a rather broad exemption if the dissemination of such paraphernalia is for the purposes of “civic education,” “the arts or science,” “research or teaching,” or for “reporting on events of current affairs or history.”
The Thies auction house takes pains to stay within bounds. All bidders on Nazi items must be “prequalified,” passing at least a rudimentary check into any possible “political motivations” for bidding on the objects, Gottlieb said. Prospective buyers who are German residents have to check a disclaimer acknowledging that they agree to the laws , and Gottlieb said enforcement continues during the day of the auction. “If somebody finds a neo-Nazi in the audience trying to buy material” or “any outward signs that they have anything but historical interest,” they get removed, he said. Basically, no skinheads. Gottlieb acknowledges there are limitations to the effectiveness of this screening: “you can’t always tell what somebody’s thinking.”
Recent history indicates that it’s not always earnest students of history who come to own Nazi gear. See: the credible allegations that racist L.A. cop Mark Fuhrman, a witness in the O.J. Simpson trial who has his own show on Fox News’ streaming service Fox Nation, owned Nazi medals and other memorabilia, even displaying them “on his desk.” He allegedly walked “around on weekends wearing Nazi” gear. Or this creepy report from Boston’s NPR station, of an antiques auction selling Nazi memorabilia in Gloucester last year, where multiple attendees said suggestively it was important to tell “both sides of the story.”
The crown jewel of Saturday’s auction was the cap: a cloth, velvet and wood visor, with “embroidered national eagle in best quality” — worn by the Fuhrer himself. Only three are known to exist, two of which are holed up in a Moscow museum. It was just one of a handful of items on sale from Gottlieb, plus one of Hitler’s brownshirts, his Blood Order medal — “one of the most prestigious decorations of the NSDAP” and a stick pin for his tie. He traces the items to a Jewish American soldier, Lieutenant Ben Lieber, who recovered them from Hitler’s Munich apartment in 1945 and brought them home to Shreveport, Louisiana.
A replica of this style of Nazi military cap can be bought on Amazon for $38.99. The real thing sold Saturday for €420,000, about $460,000. When I spoke with Gottlieb before the auction, he said that his “hope and prayer” was that the Nazi memorabilia would be “purchased by a wealthy angel investor who sends them to the Holocuast Museum or the Museum of Tolerance in L.A.,” though he acknowledged that the chances of that happening were slim. “People say, ‘why don’t you donate them yourself?” he said. “Because I can’t afford to. I’m not Bill Gates. I’m not Steven Spielberg.
“It happens to be some of the currency — some of the militaria they collect happens to be Nazi,” he said, of his customers. “They’re not collecting because they’re Nazis or sympathize with Nazism. They’re not antisemitic and many are Jewish. They just have a fascination with history.”
Both Gottlieb and the Anti-Defamation League (“In regards to Nazi memorabilia, we’d hate to see it wind up in the wrong hands,” Brysk told me) have said that Nazi artifacts are best kept in museums. But Gottlieb has a peculiar take about “tiny pieces” – small items like “bayonets, Iron Crosses.” After all there are millions of Nazi-era tchotchkes that still exist in the world. “Those things are better in private hands,” he said, “because they’re going to get talked about. Shown to kids. That’s the appropriate context for those.”
It’s likely he meant that museums couldn’t possibly display all of the millions of medals, stamps, pieces of clothing, small weapons and things like tie pins produced during the Third Reich. They would just collect dust somewhere, or get lost. But shown to kids?
Gottlieb finds great value — “spiritual” value, as he put it — in the Nazi objects themselves. He compared them to Christian relics. He believes that pumping up the value of these objects in the present preserves them in the long run (an argument that conspicuously jibes with his own financial interest). “If someone pays a million dollars for Hitler’s hat, don’t you think there’s a really good chance it’s going to get preserved?” he told Fox News. “Whether they go to a museum now, or 500 years from now, they will go to a museum someday,” he told me.
Gottlieb made an impressive haul on Saturday, although it’s not clear whether he is on track to reach his stated goal of $3.5 million for the full set. Besides the cap selling for r €420,000, the Blood Order medal went for €250,000; another medal went for €80,000. The brownshirt, worn by Hitler at the 1935 and 1938 “Party Day” rallies, went unsold. There wasn’t a bid high enough (in 2016, an Argentinian collector bought Hitler’s “last uniform jacket” for £215,000, or about $264,000).
Gottlieb didn’t respond to a text and email asking how he felt about the auction results (his press appearances were in part meant to hype up the objects before the sale, not after).
Whether his view of history comes from his own unique intellectual convictions or from his own business interests is hard to say. But it’s a perspective that does lead to some head-scratching takes, at least to people with a more conventional view of learning about history: “You could read the Diary of Anne Frank, or you can go see the Anne Frank diary itself in Los Angeles,” he said. “It’s incredible to stand before it.”