Together with the ring, more than 600 lots — the vast majority containing World War II memorabilia — worth several hundred thousand dollars went on sale on the first day of a two-day auction. Among them: a letter from SS chief Heinrich Himmler sending his mistress “a very special lovely kiss” in 1942; a typoscript from Adolf Eichmann, who comments on his death sentence, that went to a bookseller, who bid $1,700. Also offered were a map of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Julius Streicher’s anti-Semitic children’s books, papers documenting the deportation of Jews in 1943, and a collection of 41 photographs of exhumed bodies and skeletons of Russian civilians killed by German death squads.
Nazi relics make up 35 to 40 percent of the Cecil County auction house’s business, says owner Bill Panagopulos, 55, making him one of the major players in the worldwide trade of such objects. “I may not be the biggest, but probably the wildest,” he jokes.
But facilitating the sale of objects from the Third Reich is no laughing matter to many. The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants has criticized Alexander Historical Auctions for “making a business of selling Nazi artifacts and memorabilia.”
Panagopulos argues that “everybody can buy or sell what he wants.” He adds that an auction is always better than selling items under the table, because these pieces are at least visible and available for purchase by public institutions.
But, at elevated prices, institutions rarely have the means to buy these items. As a result, historians will probably never have the chance to study most of the traded papers if they stay in private collections — and that's where most of the items end up.
“Nazi sells,” says Panagopulos, who has been in the business for more than 25 years and estimates he has sold 45,000 objects. “I would sell Hitler’s mustache,” he jokes. He says that the contribution of Nazi objects to his overall earnings has increased over the past few years partly because of the enduring presence of World War II in television shows, films and books.
He says he does not particularly like the objects that bring him most of his money but that he doesn’t hesitate to sell them. “They have a bad karma,” he says. “Many consider these things distasteful, but I consider them as distasteful as any other part of history. History is not always pretty. Most of history is brutal.”