The massive ring features a swastika formed by 16 rubies. The sides bear two swords flanked by oak leaves. It comes with its original presentation case — a silver globe that also has a swastika engraved in it.
It is a particularly ostentatious — some might say ugly — piece of jewelry, but it went for a $55,000 bid on Tuesday to an anonymous buyer at Alexander Historical Auctions in Chesapeake City, Md. The ring supposedly once belonged to Adolf Hitler, although there’s no hint that he ever wore the piece, which was crafted by Nazi goldsmith Karl Berthold and apparently taken out of the country in 1945. But for collectors, that is enough to justify the price for the Nazi bling.
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.”
The relics, dating from 1933 to 1945, are assembled on the second floor of a red-brick building that houses Alexander Historical Auctions. The objects could come from a host of sources: the attic of a recently deceased man who served in the Army during World War II and brought trophies home, or European sellers who know that they will get better prices in the United States.
At Tuesday’s auction, Panagopulos, who is dressed in a blue polo shirt, jeans and sneakers and sits at a desk, gavel in hand, shouts the names of prominent Nazi figures as the lots containing their items come up for bid. The room has three large windows that look onto a pretty street lined with gift shops and restaurants, next to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
Until recently, the auction house was based in Stamford, Conn., but Panagopulos relocated it to Chesapeake City, which lies halfway between Baltimore and Philadelphia and has about 700 inhabitants. He has family nearby, and he says he was tired of the Northeast. It was also a business decision, he says: “The entire area here is very historical. So there is more material down here and less people chasing it than in New York.”
Lined up next to Panagopulos on Tuesday are eight people who take bids via telephone and the Internet on auction Web sites. Almost all of the bidding is done long-distance, although Internet buyers have to pay an additional 3 percent commission to the auction Web site, in addition to the 19.5 percent that the auction house demands. There are several lines of chairs set aside for in-person bidders, but no one shows up. Collectors of such items prefer to stay anonymous.
Trading of Nazi relics has gone global, with people buying and selling in the United States, Europe, Russia and the Far East. Thousands of Nazi objects are on display every year in auction houses or at militaria fairs in the states. Many buyers see their purchases as investments that will probably hold their value over time because of the lasting fascination with the horrific, but relatively short-lived, Third Reich.
Panagopulos said: “My clients are not neo-Nazis — they would have neither the intelligence nor the money to buy that kind of material.” He says that some of the most active dealers in Third Reich material are Jewish, such as a collector from the Midwest who bought the diaries of Josef Mengele, the physician who experimented on inmates at the Auschwitz concentration camp, for $300,000 in 2011.
Panagopulos points out that he sells other things. On Day 2 of this week’s auction, a signed letter from John Hancock from 1776, authorizing a Navy captain to engage an enemy warship, is for sale. But all the rest of the historical objects together get only half as many clicks on the auction house’s Web site as the World War II objects do.
For each auction, Panagopulos and his employees put together a glossy catalogue that is accessible online and offers descriptions of every lot, often with narratives that link the material to a prominent Nazi figure. One example from Tuesday’s event: “Hermann Goring’s gold Reichsjagermeister collar pin. An exquisite historic relic evocative of the flamboyance of Reichsjagermeister and Reichsmarschall Herman Goring, his personal gold Jagermeister, or, ‘master of hunt’ collar pin and worn by him when he was photographed for the cover of the April 1, 1940 issue of Time magazine.”
Sometimes, despite all the marketing, even Third Reich memorabilia does not sell at the targeted price. On Tuesday, a file of papers from Rudolf Hess fetched a bid of $130,000, but it was less than the consigner from Europe expected. (Panagopulos declined to offer specifics.)
Panagopulos says he is a little disappointed but expects to be able to sell the file in a private transaction. He will have to wait and make a few phone calls. “C’est la guerre,” he says.