If the U.S. government returns to Germany four watercolors painted by Adolf Hitler and more than 6,000 other works of art commissioned by the Nazis during World War II -- as suggested by some European specialists in the State Department recently -- America will not lack for Nazi art.
Though many people may not know it, Hitler supported himself -- barely -- as an artist (as well as a house painter) before he embarked on his road to world domination. And while the U.S. Army's military art collection would be diminished by 40 percent if the German art is returned, many private collections in the U.S. house Nazi art in general, and paintings by Hitler in particular.
"Hitler paintings are a very active market -- I sell three or four of them a year," says Charles Hamilton, a New York gallery owner who specialized in Nazi memorabilia. "People who collect it aren't art connoisseurs or neo-Nazis. They're usually American soldiers who fought against Hitler."
Hitler's paintings were pedestrian watercolors of buildings, pastoral scenes and landscapes.
"Hitler failed the matriculation exam at the Vienna Academy of Arts because he could not draw the human figure," says Hamilton. "He sold his art mostly to Jewish dealers in Vienna. He associated with a man named Hannish who sold the paintings for him. When they got any money, he and Hannish would hit a pastry shop. Neither men drank, and Hitler could get high on pastry. He supported himself in a desultory and inadequate fashion."
Hitler continued painting in Germany in 1912, but his paints were stolen four years later while he was recovering from wounds received in World War I. He never painted again. Later Hitler rounded up all his art he could find (Hamilton said that amounted to about 900 works), destroyed half of them, and gave away the remainder. In an apparently uncharacteristic fit of modesty, Hitler called his work unworthy of exhibit.
Today, Hitler's paintings sell for between $2,500 and $12,000 each, says Hamilton, who warns inexperienced buyers to beware of forgeries.