On Saturday in Germany, Adolf Hitler’s military uniform, visor hat and several medals will go on the auction block and could sell for upward of $2 million, based on similar sales in recent years.
The Hitler artifacts are owned by Craig Gottlieb, 48, of Del Mar, a military artifacts dealer who purchased these and other items five years ago from a Long Beach collector for more than $1 million. His purchase at the time generated international headlines, many of them negative.
Over the years, Gottlieb — who is of Jewish ethnicity but is not religious — has grown accustomed to fierce criticism over how he could profit from items associated with the murder of millions of Jews and others in the Holocaust.
Gottlieb said he’s a small businessman and can’t afford to donate his collection, and the items he trades in have great historical merit. There are still people who deny the existence of Nazi atrocities and the Holocaust, so it’s important, he said, to preserve them for future generations, particularly in a time of growing anti-Semitism.
“We don’t want to glorify the heart of evil but destroying it does not serve history,” he said. “These things will serve a purpose in the future. You have concrete ties to the past so that we can never forget.”
Gottlieb, a former Marine, has been fascinated with buying and selling military items since grade school. He has been featured as a military expert on the TV show “Pawn Stars” and in the Netflix documentary “Battlefield Recovery,” where a four-man team searched for the remains and personal effects of missing soldiers at Eastern European battlefields. In 2011, he opened his online auction house, historyhunter.com, where he has sold military antiques including uniforms, flags, weapons, hats, postcards and more.
Although he has auctioned items from multiple nations, eras and wars, the majority of the collector interest is in items associated with Germany’s Third Reich. For example, among past auctions on his website, a Vietnam-era U.S. Army helmet sold for $95, while an aluminum shell helmet with a Nazi SS insignia sold for $5,000.
The items being sold this weekend were taken from Hitler’s home in Munich in 1945 by Lt. Ben Lieber of the U.S. Army. Over the years, the collection passed through the hands of several private collectors until Gottlieb bought them from Stephen B. Wolfe in 2014. Some elements of the Wolfe collection have already been sold, but the remaining items up for auction Saturday include Hitler’s uniform visor hat, a brownshirt uniform and several medals, including an Iron Cross, Gottlieb said.
From his office near Stuttgart, Germany, auctioneer Andreas Thies said Tuesday that he’s optimistic the Hitler items will fetch a good price, particularly the visor hat, since one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s bicorn hats sold for $2.4 million at auction to a Korean investor in 2014.
“In every auction, it’s unpredictable, but the historical importance is similar,” Thies said. “For this auction, we’ve had a lot of interest from all kinds of bidders in Asia and Russia and beyond.”
During his 35 years as an auctioneer, Thies said he has sold items “from the stone age to modern times,” and while he understand the hatred associated with Hitler and the Nazi regime, the artifacts for sale have significant historical value, even if they end up in a private collection.
“It would be nice if a museum was interested in it, but an object is an object and it can not be attached to any negative feelings,” he said. “Obviously, we realize it’s a controversial period and it needs to be treated with the utmost of sophistication.”
Gottlieb said he hopes the sale is a success so he can use the money to “pivot” into the next phase of his professional career. Although he’ll still do some memorabilia sales privately, he plans to focus his energies on his new charity, the Military History Institute.
The organization will organize and fund speaking engagements by American war heroes in the public schools. It will also produce military-themed TV shows and films and it will arrange long-term loans and donations of military artifacts for public display. One of the first items the Institute donated was the uniform of George H. Kirk, Sr., a World War II Navajo code talker, to the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Ariz.
Gottlieb said this weekend’s auction, if successful, will be the apex of his career as a dealer, so he’d like to go out on top. But he’s also changing gears because he’s ready to leave behind the controversy.
“I’m very understanding of the criticism, but I’m tired of it,” he said. “There’s no shortage of praise for heroes. But you can’t honor heroes without remembering what they fought to defeat. Without that, the cost of their sacrifice is diminished. And artifacts like these are tangible ties to the evil that is possible in the world.”
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