On the psychpathology of the collector and the attraction of dictator art
Anyone like to buy Schindler’s list? I don’t mean a DVD of the film: I mean Schindler’s list. It’s available for $1.2 million on a U.S. website, apparently ‘the opportunity of a lifetime’. But what kind of person would take such an opportunity? The dedicated collector of Holocaustiana? Someone seeking that elusive dinner party ice-breaker? Or a different kind of collector altogether, the military history kind? There are other more sinister things on the market too: Dr. Mengele’s diary, anyone?
As a Jewish manuscript dealer, there can be those awkward moments when autograph collecting merges effortlessly into Neo-Nazism. When that Floridian collector turned out to have a moat around his house, guns and fourteen signed portraits of Hitler on his wall, for instance. Oh, and that time when a young German dealer added to his display a schoolbook penned by the nine-year-old Heinrich Himmler. It’s hard to know how to respond at such moments—produce a Magen David and twiddle it nervously, smile at the embarrassing whiff of anti-Semitism and hope that it will all go away, or just call the police?
Stalin wrote some solid poetry, and Gaddafi is a lovely novelist
It can happen off duty as well. Just the other day at a picnic, after I’d revealed my profession to a group of strangers, one of them asked, without an ounce of irony, ‘So, do you get much Hitler, then?’ I laughed awkwardly, as if he and I were on the inside of a joke, and offered a sort of apology: ‘Well, no, not really. I don’t tend to do Nazis.’ They murdered my family, I should have added, which sort of puts me off selling their autographs.Though, as you bring it up, I’m as obsessed with Nazis as the next man. But then, I’m Jewish. What’s your excuse?
Some time ago, I confess, I did have a brief period of doing Nazis. A signed copy of Mein Kampf came up in auction and I had an overwhelming urge to buy it. I fought with myself, wondered whether my desire for a Hitler autograph meant that I was an anti-Semite. And then I got tired of the discussion and asserted my Third Generation right to buy Nazi memorabilia. So, I bought it. And it was mine. Mein Kampf arrived, I installed it on my bookshelf, and I found that I kept on picking it up and touching it, tracing my finger over the handwriting, showing it to friends.I still wasn’t sure if I was a traumatised victim identifying with and appeasing the aggressor or just another despicable Hitler fanatic. As serendipity would have it, I owned one of Sigmund Freud’s walking sticks at the same time, which I kept under my bed. I remember handling both objects simultaneously, creating a sort of Freud-Hitler axis of good and evil. I trusted Freud to represent my interests and explain away my Hitler obsession. Or was I just using Freud as cover for my own Nazism? It was hard to tell.
Anyway, the point is that I don’t do Nazis anymore, though Hitler still remains a fascination, something of a guilty pleasure.I guess it’s not surprising,when every other book in my childhood home had Hitler or Holocaust in the title. Plus, my father fanatically collects postcards of synagogues that were destroyed by the Nazis. I have dreams about Hitler sometimes, including a recent one where he and I met at a dinner dance, finding ourselves both tragically without partners. I tell myself that it’s OK to dream about the man who killed my family, that it’s my entitlement. But what possible excuse can a non-Jew have for a Hitler fixation? Shouldn’t they stick to poets or Presidents or ice-skating champions? Something less, well, Jewish?
One of the paradoxes of collecting is the attention the collector pays to the unique blend of items he assembles, whilst simultaneously denying absolutely that the collection says anything at all about him personally, about his issues. I can say from experience that this is because the collector feels himself to be accumulating items not for himself, but for mankind.The collector is so mind-bogglingly un-self-aware,that it never crosses his mind that his collection of, say, autographed photographs of actresses who died very young in tragic circumstances, just might suggest that he has an unhealthily keen interest in the deaths of glamorous young women, which perhaps stems from a repressed desire to kill his own disappointing mother, whose absence from his early years resulted in his spending much of his childhood sat on the sofa beside an au pair, watching Marilyn Monroe movies. No, the collector is oblivious to the cause and effect, and anyway doesn’t want to dwell on his childhood.As far as he is concerned, he is doing what any other rational human being would do if they only had the bright idea, the eye for rarity, and the desire to preserve ‘culture’.
Armed with this kind of insight into the mind of the collector, it’s understandable that I would feel queasy to see another sale of Hitler’s paintings come up for auction in Shropshire last month. Now, I’m not against dictators dabbling in the arts per se—Stalin wrote some solid poetry, and Gaddafi is a lovely novelist—but this is something different. This auction house has been conducting regular Hitler Art sales for several years now, including an auction in 2009 that featured a supposed self-portrait by Hitler, who was shown sitting on a bridge in soulful self-contemplation. There has been much media speculation about the authenticity of the Hitler paintings that keep showing up (they are probably all fakes), but that doesn’t seem to stem the flow. As the auctioneer explained, ‘there is a tremendous fascination in Hitler these days and this sale will provide bidders with a rare opportunity of obtaining a work by Hitler at a time long before he started his campaigns of mass murder and world domination’. Well, I’m glad the auctioneer reminds us that the paintings all date from before all the Holocaust stuff, because otherwise we might be tempted to lump the early, kindly Hitler together with the later meaner Hitler, which seems unfair. Indeed, the auctioneer makes the point that the pictures are ‘all peaceful subjects, without exception, no military, no violent subjects’. It does make you sort of start wondering whether there is real credence to the argument that Adolf Hitler was, primarily, a struggling oil painter.
Oh, and did you know that one of the pictures in the collection—again, questions about authenticity—may have once hung in the offices of Sigmund Freud? (It seems I’m not the only one to summon Freud when cornered by his conscience.) Yes, they found Freud’s address penned on the reverse of a dodgy painting of a church, and it all adds up: Hitler was a struggling artist in Vienna at exactly the same time as Freud was in private practise there. So, Freud must have met the young Hitler, and found him personable enough to buy one of his paintings and hang it on his wall! And presumably Freud must also have recognised some talent in the young Hitler, some possibility of future greatness you’d think, for isn’t future greatness the currency of the art collector?
I have come to realise that collecting itself is a form of revisionism. You focus on a particular person, or period of history, and you necessarily draw attention away from the larger context. You distort historical events, because you have to bend history in order to see your reflection in it, at least the reflection you want to see. It’s ultimately about repair. I shouldn’t be against it, especially as I rely on the psychopathology of the collector to make a living. But it’s not always healthy. Someone once came to my table at a New York autograph fair, wearing a sharp suit and bow-tie, and announced, smugly, that he was looking for unsuccessful Presidential candidates. Sorry, nothing at all, I said. What I should really have done is throw a blanket over him, make him a cup of hot cocoa, and give him some of the love he missed out on as a child, during those months when his parents’ marriage was on the rocks and he was sent away to boarding school and failed all his exams and cried himself to sleep every night. You’ll always be a success in my eyes, I should have told him, but I can’t help thinking that maybe collecting isn’t for you.
Adam Andrusier studied music at Cambridge, where he performed piano recitals and a concerto. He has since formed his own company, selling rare autographs and manuscripts. He has written two novels.