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Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Court Considers Ownership of Seized 'Hitler' Paintings



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 vault.

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 war."

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 year.

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 them."

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 History.

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 years.

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 daughter.

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 States.

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 personality.

"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 collector.

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 wrong."

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 appeal.

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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Early Hitler works found in Iran
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© Focal Point 2001 e-mail:  write to David Irving