In the collectors-gonna-collect department, a Friday New York Times opinion piece asks, "What Kind of Person Has a Closet Full of Nazi Memorabilia?" We all know one kind - the collector.
Here's a spotty excerpt, which can't do justice to the complete article available online.
At the Ohio Valley Military Society's annual Show of Shows, there is plenty for sale that isn't Nazi memorabilia. All sorts of mementos from all sorts of wars: Civil War caps, antique pistols, Purple Hearts, samurai swords, World War I trench kits. But there is a lot of Nazi memorabilia.
For a while I shadowed a tall, affable dealer from Belgium who specialized in badges and who'd already spent nearly all of the $100,000 in cash he'd brought with him. He stopped at one table and efficiently inspected a couple of dozen Nazi-era Iron Crosses, whispering to me which were fake or had been modified, before settling on one he liked, or at least thought worth the $500 he paid for it.
I'd gone to the Show of Shows, the largest military memorabilia show in the country, because I wanted to better understand the trade in Nazi artifacts, to try to get a sense of these collectors, their motivations.
For years I've seen up close the pull Nazi artifacts can exert. I've spent time with Polish treasure hunters seeking, and occasionally finding, any variety of objects left behind by the Nazis. But I hadn't understood how pervasive the trade was — hadn't understood, in fact, that it was a trade, how thoroughly these artifacts had been commodified. And I certainly hadn't realized how the big the market was here, in the United States.
What opened my eyes was learning how much Nazi stuff there was on LiveAuctioneers, the pre-eminent online platform for antiques dealers. According to a Times Opinion analysis, the site has published more than 30,000 listings for Nazi memorabilia in the past 15 years, making it probably the biggest, and certainly the most mainstream, purveyor of Nazi artifacts in the country. Although LiveAuctioneers' policy prohibits
items that glorify or otherwise capitalize on human tragedy with no regard or sensitivity to the suffering caused by such events, genuine Nazi artifacts are generally exempt, as they're considered
historical. (Most other major platforms have enacted more stringent policies. EBay, for example, bars any item that bears a swastika, with some exceptions for currency, stamps, historically accurate models and dioramas and photos, books and art, as well as items that predate 1933.)
News that someone is into Nazi memorabilia or more generally that there's a ready supply of and demand for Nazi memorabilia is met, predictably, with widespread outrage (if perhaps also with some measure of titillation). If no one seems all that shocked that it's legal — the sanctity of the First Amendment is baked deep into the American psyche — then I think it's fair to say that people are upset, or at least weirded out, that such items are bought and sold, promoted, profited from, and treasured. People cannot imagine how any non-Nazi could be into this stuff, with the corollary that anyone who is into this stuff must be a Nazi or basically a Nazi or is sufficiently Nazi-philic to warrant extreme suspicion.
This is a valid and justifiable response — it's an excellent rule of thumb, to be on the side that's against Nazis — but at the same time it strikes me as incomplete. It does not reckon with who the collectors are or why they collect nor does it address the principles the market is built on, or what it in fact espouses.
The truth is that many collectors of Nazi memorabilia are, in fact, collectors, a term I'm using semi-technically to describe those who dedicate themselves, often obsessively and for reasons inscrutable to the outsider, to amassing some or other class of objects, usually something interestingly varied in terms of condition, provenance and rareness — action figures, stamps, coins, Pez dispensers. This isn't to say there's never a profit motive, but there is, or at least at some point was, a base desire on the part of collectors to, simply, possess.
There's a lot to collect, Michael Hughes, the author of
The Anarchy of Nazi Memorabilia: From Things of Tyranny to Troubled Treasure, told me.
Absolutely, Nazi memorabilia appeals to the systematic collector who collects complete series, like baseball cards. Dr. Hughes, an academic who describes himself as a
reformed collector and who has interviewed or otherwise interacted with hundreds of collectors of Nazi memorabilia, says most aren't all that strange or exceptional, at least with respect to the larger collecting community.
Generally the people I have met over the last 30 years are just your average Joes, he said.
There are collectors of Nazi memorabilia who are Jewish, whose relatives died in the Holocaust. None were eager to speak with me on the record — not because they thought they were doing anything shameful but because, as one told me,
Most people don't get it, and will never get it — but made it clear that their fascination with Nazi artifacts in no way diluted their completely standard views regarding World War II, Nazis and the Holocaust.
One collector I spoke to explained it in terms of
Star Wars: Which is more compelling, he asked, the Light Side or the Dark Side?
To read the complete article, see:
What Kind of Person Has a Closet Full of Nazi Memorabilia?
Wayne Homren, Editor
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