The museum’s cameras first recorded the burglars’ presence around 2 a.m. as they pried open the building’s gates, only to watch them abruptly leave. They remained close by, however, arranging a distraction on the nearby highway by parking a fake police car alongside an equally fake roadblock before returning to the museum in a small fleet of station wagons. Once inside, they shattered display cases and moved with the efficiency of Black Friday customers determined to walk away with every heavily discounted item advertised.
Only these thieves didn’t covet the priceless works of art, gems and diamonds one might expect from a museum heist. Nope, the cat burglars had come for cloth and impeccable stitch work — namely, a uniform that had once been worn by Adolf Hitler’s personal chef. In all, they stole nine Nazi uniforms. They didn’t waste any time either, opting to remove the whole mannequins the uniforms were placed upon rather than undress them. (Hence the need for station wagons.)
The museum’s alarms were triggered along the way, but the fake roadblock slowed down the cops long enough to give the burglars time to escape into the pre-dawn darkness with a stolen cache of Nazi artifacts worth an estimated $1.5 million.
The operation was just one such heist in a series of break-ins that have all the features of a military-style raid and that target World War II museums with low-level security but high-value items. “The stuff that’s being stolen [from Eva Braun’s panties and nightgowns, to Hermann Göring’s flatware] is all very desirable, and the prices are going crazy,” a dealer of military memorabilia in Belgium told the New York Times last month. “Everyone knows if it’s got a Nazi emblem on it, its price is high.”
How high a price are we talking? Try $35,000 for an original SS uniform. Hitler’s telephone, used in the bunker where he took his life, sold for $243,000 in 2019. And the Fallschirmjägergewehr 42, or “F.G. 42,” a famed Nazi gun for paratroopers of which only 5,000 were made, is now worth approximately $175,000, with some estimates as high as $250,000. (Which is probably why an F.G. 42 has been snatched by two different sets of thieves in two recent break-ins.) For comparison’s sake, Nazi artifacts and Apple’s share price have been growing at roughly the same rate over the last decade.
What’s pushing the hyper-valuation of anything Nazi-related?
First of all, a large part of the demand for stolen Nazi artifacts is due to the demand for all things Nazi, which has led to a glut of fake Nazi goods on the market. (The increasing amount of fakes in the collectors market is why the authentic stuff draws top dollar; the two dynamics drive each other.) “A lot of fake material, ersatz garbage, is coming in from Bulgaria, Poland, the Ukraine and even Pakistan,” Bill Panagopulos, who owns Alexander Historical Auctions in Chesapeake City, Maryland, told Artnet in early November. “Some of it is faked so well that it’s difficult to tell.”
To that end, last year, the Buenos Aires Holocaust Museum was set to open a new show featuring a highly prized collection of Nazi artifacts. They had been seized by Argentinian police and then turned over to the museum to be displayed. There were a total of 72 objects in the collection, valued at an estimated $34 million. Among them were busts of Hitler and oddities like “a Nazi-decorated Ouija board.” It turned out, though, only 10 of them were authentic (the Ouija board was one of the fakes).
There are sources for legitimate Nazi artifacts, however. For instance, Mike Morris, a Texas-based dealer, had the good fortune to be in Germany when the original goods were considered worthless. “I would put ads in the local newspapers there, asking people to meet me at a hotel,” he told Artnet. “I would buy these veterans a couple of beers, and they would bring me sacks of this stuff.” The Germans were eager to hand over the old Nazi stuff they had lying around because it was against the law in post-war Germany to keep any item with a swastika, and if they could turn a small profit while ridding themselves of it, why not?
But there’s only so many of these items to go around, and thus, to meet the rising demand, professional thieves have stepped into the void. They, in turn, seem to be hired by organized-crime families, who art-crime police believe are contracted by wealthy collectors from Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Asia. For instance, a buyer in Qatar was willing to pony up $55,000 for an SS officer’s coat, and a Chinese buyer paid $30,000 for a carved eagle decorated with a swastika. Meanwhile, in Ireland, two Nazi artifact collectors made the news after one stole the dog of the other in order to get back at the first for selling him fake Göring daggers and a dessert spoon that never belonged to Hitler.
The motivation behind these purchases is tough to generalize. Case in point: In 2019, a Lebanese-born real estate mogul, Abdullah Chatila, spent $660,000 to purchase a trove of Nazi artifacts, including a top hat once owned by Hitler. But they weren’t for his personal collection. Instead, Chatila announced his plans to donate the objects to the Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal group, so that it could use the items to preserve the memory of Nazi atrocities. He felt this would be far more important than whatever a collector would do with them. (Per the Washington Post, there are also many Jewish collectors of Nazi artifacts for the exact same reason.) On the flip side, authorities don’t believe it’s neo-Nazis driving demand, since as Richard Bronswijk from the Dutch police’s art-crime unit told the New York Times, “Those guys don’t have much money, and like to buy replicas.”
What’s abundantly clear, though, is that when a single Nazi gun is worth a quarter of a million dollars and a number of them reside in vulnerable small-town museums found throughout Europe, we can expect more headlines trumpeting the latest heist of Nazi artifacts. Because money has no morality, it goes where the action is.