Hitler’s Paintings, Dirty Money, and an Ethics Quiz

A Hitler masterpiece during the artist's controversial "Care Bears" period

As readers here probably know, I don’t do much commentary on Swedish ethics, but this intriguing story touches on a couple of Ethics Alarms topics of continuing interest: so-called dirty money and political correctness.

Sweden’s debt collection agency had planned to sell seven paintings by that noted 20th Century artist Adolf Hitler to bring the government some extra cash to pay off debts. A genuine Hitler can fetch $40,000 or more on the global art market. The intended sale never happened, because the agency concluded that the paintings were fakes, but never mind: what is ethically provocative is that Stockholm’s Jewish association protested that it would be morally offensive for the government to make money off of Hitler’s artistic labors. “It is symbolically unfortunate that people earn money on these items,” said the group’s spokesperson.

In response, the agency stated that “it can’t consider ethical factors in settling outstanding debts.” I’m sure that sounded better in Swedish. Such an idiotic statement loses an argument that should have never been brought: of course the agency has to consider ethical issues in settling outstanding debts, and in everything else. But selling Hitler’s paintings, which he created when he was in Vienna a long time before he started liquidating Jews and marching into Poland, is not unethical by any rational measure:

  • It doesn’t benefit Hitler, who is beyond helping.
  • The paintings didn’t harm anyone during their creation.
  • There is no such thing as  inherently evil works of art, even clown paintings, Newt Gingrich novels and Britney Spears songs
  • The presumption that the purchasers of the paintings admire or otherwise want to burnish the memory of Adolf Hitler is unwarranted, and irrelevant.
  •  We do not and should not judge the value of art by the character or deeds of the artists. Many great artists are despicable individuals. Frank Sinatra was a great singer, but he played with the Mafia. William Saroyan was a wonderful writer, but he was  anti-Semitic. Paul Robson was brilliant actor, singer and civil rights crusader, but he was a supporter of Stalin.

Jews, and most decent people, hate Hitler; that is reasonable. It is not reasonable to advocate a mystical avoidance of anything that has any connection to him. How would the association distinguish between a book store selling Hitler’s manifesto, “Mein Kampf,” and the debt agency selling his paintings? I would say that the book is far more offensive than the paintings, which have nothing to do with fascist ideology. If money acquired by selling Hitler’s paintings is put to good use, then their sale easily meets utilitarian standards as an ethical act.

The agency’s declaration that ethics doesn’t matter when you’re trying to find money, however, is ominous. It suggests an instance of doing something that is ethical while believing that it may be unethical, and not caring—which is either unethical itself, or attempted unethical conduct.

And here is the bonus Ethics Quiz. Your question:  If it was unethical to sell Hitler’s paintings, would have been more ethical to sell paintings that were forgeries of Hitler’s paintings to people who thought they were genuine?

12 thoughts on “Hitler’s Paintings, Dirty Money, and an Ethics Quiz

  1. Pingback: Hitler's Paintings, Dirty Money, and an Ethics Quiz | Ethics Alarms « Ethics Find

  2. Pingback: Hitler's Paintings, Dirty Money, and an Ethics Quiz | Ethics Alarms « Ethics Find

  3. A notable anti-Semite, whose artistic creations were favorites of the lowest scum of the 20th Century, Adolf Hitler, was a man by the name of Richard Wagner (1813-83). Wagner acted hatefully, not only to Jews, but to many other people in his life, such as his wives and mistresses. Altogether, he was not an ornament to the human race.

    And he somehow created some of the most sublime music heard in many generations..

    But perhaps we should discourage its performance because its composer was such a rotter, yes?

    • But Wagner’s art is appreciated because of the art in spite of the artist, Hitler’s competent but unremarkable work is purchased BECAUSE of the artist at a massive premium DESPITE the unremarkable art. There’s the difference this story ignores — and it IS relevant that buyers may well be buying in order to honor the man. That said, I am not in favor of destroying that art — it just should not circulate, but rather exist in a display of uniquely odd items representing the horrors of human history.
      (I recognize I have emerged from a time warp to comment on a 6-year-old post)…

  4. It’s a can of worms. In my opinion, Hitler was pure evil. While many of his paintings are good, I would not spend one cent to own any of them. My choice. I also plan not to ever look at them again. I only looked now because some one, a stranger to me, told me that my paintings are better than Hitler’s. I was, and still am, insulted to be compared at all to him, in any way.
    As far as selling fakes of his paintings to an unsuspecting buyer…that is just wrong, again, my opinion. Lying is never the right thing to do, unless your mother made you tell your great aunt that here coffee cake was delicious!!
    As I said…a can of worms.

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