Wednesday, May 9, 2001
Considers Ownership of Seized 'Hitler'
By WILLIAM H. HONAN
WASHINGTON, May 7 - In a
climate- controlled basement downtown, at location
that the United States Army has insisted on keeping
secret since the end of World War II, is a
carefully executed, traditional watercolor of a
quaint, empty courtyard. Measuring about 16 by 21
inches, it lies in a steel-gray cabinet along with
three others by the same hand.
The government maintains that the very brush
strokes of the painter have such incendiary
potential that they must be guarded from the gaze
of all but screened experts.
The works are signed, "A Hitler."
But the need to keep them hidden is challenged
in a lawsuit that has been making its way through
the courts for 18 years and was heard today in the
federal appeals court here, where a panel of three
judges barely let lawyers state their cases before
subjecting them to a barrage of questions on
jurisdiction, statutes of limitation and other
technical matters. The name Hitler was never
mentioned. His artworks were discreetly referred to
as "the watercolors."
The paintings were owned by Hitler's friend and
personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann,
and confiscated as propaganda after the war along
with Hoffmann's vast archive of photographs. The
2.5 million photographs include rare images of
Hitler rehearsing his flamboyant style of oratory,
as well as various intimate moments.
The United States seized the material along with
thousands of other Nazi artworks; they were used as
evidence at the Nuremberg war crimes trials and
then sent to Washington. In the 1950's most were
returned to Germany, leaving only a few hundred
deemed the most inflammatory in the secret
The complaint, brought
by the photographer's heirs and a Texas
collector, contends that the Hoffmann material
has long since lost its power to incite and
should be returned - not to Germany but to the
plaintiffs. They say the military promised
Hoffmann that he would get his property back.
Thus, the lawsuit says, the works are being
"wrongfully retained" - tantamount to theft -
because of "politics."
The United States is arguing its case mainly on
narrow legal grounds: that federal statutes and
postwar agreements with the Germans allowed it to
seize German property and that all deadlines for
restitution claims passed long ago. But Jeffrey
Axelrad, a senior lawyer at the Justice
Department who has led the government's defense for
more than a decade, said that an overarching
principle applied: "The United States government is
entitled to retain Hitler memorabilia which came
into our nation's possession because we won the
Others go further. In an affidavit for the
United States, Sybil H. Milton, an authority
on Nazi Germany and the
Holocaust, argued that the paintings and
photographs "make Hitler look harmless, and they
could be used to disguise the horror and murderous
brutality of Nazi Germany." Her statement was
submitted before her death from cancer last
Mr. Axelrad was drawn into the case in 1989 when
a district court in Texas
ruled in favor of the
plaintiffs. He was outraged, he said, that
the court would allow the Hoffmann heirs "to wait
beyond the two-year statute of limitations until
they found someone who could litigate the case for
The reference is to the unlikely alliance of
Hoffmann's daughter, Henrietta, and Billy
Price, a wealthy American collector of Hitler
memorabilia with a fascination for trying to
understand the dictator's personality. The daughter
was once married to Baldur von Schirach, the
architect of Hitler's powerhouse youth movement and
part of the intimate circle in which the Nazi
leader forged his public persona.
Hoffmann served not only as Hitler's
photographer but also as his confidant and
public-speaking coach. Hitler met his future
mistress, Eva Braun, during visits to the
Hoffmann studio, where she worked.
Hitler had presented the courtyard scene, titled
"Der Alte Hof-München" ("The Old Courtyard in
Munich"), to Hoffmann in 1936 as a 50th-birthday
gift. Nine years later, as Nazi Germany crumbled,
Hoffmann chose a medieval castle outside Munich and
a church in Bavaria as hiding places for the
courtyard picture and three other Hitler
watercolors he had acquired, along with his own
extraordinary collection of photography. After
Germany surrendered, Allied investigators
discovered and seized the work under the terms of
the Potsdam Conference of 1945.
In time the photographs
and paintings went their separate ways. The
photographs, some 2.5 million images of Germany
from the 1860's to a few days before Hitler
committed suicide in 1945, were transferred to
the National Archives and have been accessible
to the public ever since. The paintings were
retained by the Army's Center of Military
The Hoffmann archive is contained in albums
filled with contact prints, glass plate negatives,
miscellaneous prints and nearly 500 rolls of
35-millimeter nitrate negatives.
Fritz Redlich, an emeritus professor of
psychiatry at Yale University and the author of
"Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet"
(Oxford University Press, 1998), who interviewed
Hoffmann's daughter, said, "Hoffmann had absolute
access to Hitler and could capture his whims,
prejudices and character."
Noting the propagandistic nature of the work, he
added, "He could also manipulate the images to
create whatever impression he wished."
Hoffmann was tried by a German court as a Nazi
profiteer - he had received huge royalties for the
use of his photographs - and imprisoned for five
After his release, he sought to regain what the
Americans had seized. He died in 1957, and his
daughter pursued the claim.
Decades later, when Mr. Price, the Texas
collector, was researching his privately published
book "Adolf Hitler: The
Unknown Artist" (1985), he learned of
the confiscated Hitler material and Hoffmann's
According to court documents, the two met in
1982 in Munich. There they arranged to transfer
title to the works from the photographer's heirs to
Mr. Price, who as an American citizen might have a
better chance in a lawsuit against the United
Mr. Price then began making demands of various
agencies, and in 1983 he brought suit in a federal
court in Texas for the return of the material. In
1989, the court ruled that the United States was
indeed liable for damages and set a date for a
trial to decide the amount that the United States
would have to pay.
Experts say paintings by Hitler - there are
hundreds attributed to him - are being traded over
the Internet for around $10,000 each. The
photographic archive was valued some years ago for
the Justice Department at nearly $3 million.
But Mr. Price and the surviving heirs - the
daughter died in 1992 - are now seeking $99 million
in damages for having been denied the use of the
material for so many years.
Mr. Price did not return repeated telephone
calls. Within the subculture of dealers in Nazi-era
memorabilia, his interest is regarded as mainly
financial. But Larry A. Campagna, one of the
Houston lawyers who has represented Mr. Price in
his lawsuit, said his client had a scholarly
mission, to help the world understand Hitler's
"He has been interested
in the fact that three of the major leaders
during World War II - Churchill, Roosevelt and
Hitler - were painters, and he believes that
much can be learned by studying their
paintings," Mr. Campagna said.
In 1990 Mr. Price told The Dallas Morning News
that, after being insulted and even shot at for his
avocation, he had sold his entire collection of
Hitler artworks to an anonymous American
The 1989 liability ruling touched off a welter
of claims and counterclaims. But, perhaps most
important, it captured the interest of Mr. Axelrad
at the Justice Department.
"I can't get involved in every case, obviously,"
he said. "But when I read the judge's decision on
the government's liability in the case in 1989 I
became convinced that something had gone terribly
As the case heated up, the plaintiffs tried to
bring it to the Supreme Court, but failed. At
another point, the Texas judge ordered the United
States to pay $7.8 million in damages. But Mr.
Axelrad succeeded in moving the case to the federal
district court here, which ruled in the
government's favor, leading to the current
Robert I. White, the Houston lawyer who
represents Mr. Price and the Hoffmann heirs, said
he hoped the case would be sent back to Texas. "In
Texas," he said, "we'll win."
Mr. Axelrad, however, is confident. "I think
we've got a very strong case," he said. "You could
add another `very' to that if you like."
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