Friday 12 February 2010

Swede Accused in Auschwitz Theft Case to be Tried in Poland

The Swede accused of being involved in the theft of the Arbeit Macht Frei sign above the main gate at the Auschwitz I concentration camp in the early hours of 18th December 2009 is to be tried in Poland, a Swedish court has just announced.

There is a lot of confusion surrounding this story, with some newspapers alleging that it had been a "rich British collector" who had in fact ordered the theft, and former Neo-Nazi Anders Hogstrom was simply a middleman. Other reports suggest that this story, and the tale that the funds from the sale were to be used to finance terrorist activity are a fantasy. Let us hope that the ongoing investigation after Hogstrom's arrest earlier today will provide some answers.


Nevertheless, whoever hoped to obtain the stolen item, we might consider what they were planning to do with it. Where would one display a five-metre long metal sign weighting forty kilogrammes which is so iconic to be instantly recognisable? Presumably the would-be collector had a place in mind in which he would keep the artefact, where it would only be seen by those he chose to show it to. The motivation for the theft is also unclear. There is obviously the selfish desire to have something nobody else has got, not having to share it with others, the frisson of physical contact with the authentic substance of the past. Maybe part of the motivation is the arrogant desire to deprive those who the collector feels unworthy (less worthy than himself) to posess this object. Perhaps he imagined he and he alone was able to appreciate it more than those in whose hands it was until this part of a monument was turned into a "portable antiquity" by five "enterprising" men with hacksaws he had commissioned to do this. Perhaps he argued that the object could only be appreciated properly in the context of the other objects he had gathered in his collection, or was planning to add to it. Maybe the would-be collector argued that it would be better "protected" in his climate-controlled Nazi trophy room than exposed to the elements in Poland. These are all arguments used by the collectors of dugup antiquities, ripped from their context in the soil, just the same as the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign was ripped from its context above the infamous gate. They try to explain away the ripping out of fragments with these arguments, but in reality there can be no justification for the damage done.

But there is of course another side to this, the context here has lost the object collected. Just the same as an archaeological deposit is damaged by the selective removal of items which can be treated as collectables. Auschwitz I without the sign is impoverished in an all-too-obvious manner. In the same way the archaeological record of sites affected by artefact hunting is impoverished by lots of little holes dug all over the place and coins and other items hoiked out. In the case of the camp gate, the recovered item can be put back, in the case of the archaeological record the information lost when holes are dug all over it cannot.

Finally, what a great deterrent it would be if, as in this case, all those accused of buying and selling cultural objects (portable antiquities) from other countries in a manner that violates their laws were deported to those countries for trial. That is what has happened here, those alleged to be involved in this theft are accused of breaking the Polish laws protecting cultural property currently on Polish soil, and it is here that they and their alleged accomplices and those accused of financing it should be tried.

In the same way would it not be nice to see those engaging in business which involves violating the laws protecting the archaeological heritage in the territories of Turkey and Bulgaria taken to those countries and facing a spell in a Turkish or Bulgarian jail? In such a manner, those selling shabtis and scarabs that turn out to be looted would go to Egypt for trial, and those selling Iraqi artefacts sent to Iraq for sentencing. It will never happen of course, but it seems to be about the only thing which would induce certain groups of dealers and collectors not merely to go through the motions of "due diligence", but actually keep documentation that can verify the precise status of each item in which they deal, and reject those objects for which such documentation cannot be established.

Photo: the gate after the sign had been stolen. Below: original state.


Anonymous said...

Excellent arguments re. why leaving stuff in place matters-- work well for monuments, and I'll remember them the next time i think / discuss Parthenon frieze (or Bassae frieze, etc).

But are there people who collect e.g. "souvenirs" extracted from concentration camps ? Shoes, spoons, artifacts ? Would they also be touched by such arguments, or would they prefer to open their ears to the "OWN A PIECE OF HISTORY" merchandising ?


Paul Barford said...

What I was trying to examine was the arguments of the pro-collecting lobby as regards collection of archaeological artefacts by putting them in a slightly different context.The Arbeit Mach Frei sign was made into a portable antiquity by severing it from the site of which it forms an integral part, in the same way as "portable antiquity" archaeological collectables are severed from THEIR context to serve the selfish aims of the buyers and sellers. In the case of the sign, it is clear that what happened was wrong (unless you are the person with the hacksaw up a ladder in the middle of the night in Oswiecim), where do you draw the line?

As regards the second question (and I am not quite sure of the reason behind it), the answer is yes - but remember not all concentration camps were death camps in the sense that Auschwitz- Brzezinka. Neither were they all for Jews. There are metal detectorists who search camp sites, most of what I have seen on sale here though are dogtags from military POWs- both whole and halved. Not all of the many subcamps sites are protected by law. There are also those who collect Nazi prison camp postage stamps and letters sent out of the camps. So, yes memorabilia of this type is collected. As far as the stamps and letters go (many of which are of course fakes) I'm not so sure it is wrong, I do not approve of the metal detected dogtags though. Let us not mention those that go with metal detectors into the woods where cremated ashes were tipped to find the gold fillings the Nazis missed. Few of us would have any dificulty condemning that I hope, even though strictly speaking it is not illegal. There are many sides to this hobby labelled "metal detecting".

Anonymous said...

Yes, I like the way you use the argument from the Auschwitz sign. My point about the artifacts, etc from concentration camps, was that the same arguments apply to them, too.

Paul Barford said...

I think they apply to any artefacts which come from a particular context where for various reasons they would be better left and which are subject to commercial exploitation for collection.

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