Watercolors and sketches attributed to Adolf Hitler are up for sale Tuesday, forcing a tiny auction house in southwest England to install multiple telephone lines to accommodate an expected crush of bidders from Canada to New Zealand.
The 21 watercolors and two sketches were found in a farmhouse in Belgium, not far from where Hitler — then an aspiring artist — was stationed in Flanders during World War I.
The anonymous owners of the works — mostly landscapes — had the paper tested to determine its age, confirmed the signature and matched landmarks in the paintings to sites where Hitler was posted, said Chris Walton, a spokesman for Jefferys Auctioneers at Lostwithiel in Cornwall.
Still, it is impossible to say with certainty whether Hitler painted them. The experts who authenticated them in the 1980s are now dead. Even so, the works could sell for up to $8,000 apiece, Walton said.
"Some people would consider the sale somewhat controversial, but the pieces were executed so long ago — nearly 100 years ago — that they now just represent something of the past," Walton said. "The paintings are of historical interest rather than artistic merit."
Hitler is thought to have painted hundreds of pieces before becoming Nazi leader. In the past, his paintings have sold for $5,000 to $50,000.
Dealing with Hitler's work and other items related to the Nazi regime, which systematically killed 6 million Jews, has always been a thorny issue.
In many European countries, including Germany, it is illegal to buy, own or sell Nazi memorabilia. A German auction house in 2001 withdrew a Hitler painting following public protests. The Center of Military History in Washington has hundreds of Nazi-related pieces — including four Hitler paintings — but they are locked in vaults and not on display.
"It's in very bad taste," said Rhonda Barad with the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group. "Most auction houses have steered clear of such sales because it offends a lot of people still alive today."
Despite the sensitivities, items associated with Hitler are still in demand.
In 2004, an auction house was even able to sell for nearly $8,000 a volume of the bogus "Hitler diaries," which were published in the 1980s by a German magazine.
London art dealer Minas Katchadorian is selling a desk and chair that belonged to Hitler; the furniture, which is not being sold at Tuesday's auction, is expected to fetch up to $1 million. Katchadorian said the oak pieces came from Hitler's apartment in Munich, bought for the fuehrer by a wealthy admirer.
Buys of Hitler items are usually private collectors of military memorabilia or World War II enthusiasts, according to art dealers and auction houses.
Jefferys Auctioneers, which normally auctions antiques and farm equipment, has become better known since it sold another Hitler painting last year. The watercolor — a caricature of a German postman — was drawn by Hitler in 1924. It sold for $8,500.
That sale attracted the son of the current collection's owners. Jefferys will get a 15 percent commission.
Hitler's works had dramatic skies, detailed architectural structures, muted colors and rudimentary people. He applied to the Vienna School of Fine Arts — and was rejected.
"The paintings don't distinguish him as an artist but more a competent draftsman," said Terry Charman with the Imperial War Museum in London, which has Hitler's last will and testament.
"No one is buying them for works of art. They're buying them because they were done by one of the most infamous people of the 20th century."