The Auction Market from 1930-1945 in Germany, Austria and Switzerland

With a source inventory of nearly 3000 auction catalogues, 2600 of which were published in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, it is now possible for the first time to make more precise statements on the development of the auction market in the respective countries on a broad basis. Decisive for the development of the art market and especially the auction market was the National Socialist policy from 1933 onwards with its restrictive, racist art policy, which was considerably determined by the disenfranchisement, robbery, persecution and extermination of the Jewish population. With these measures, large quantities of valuable works of art, as well as of furniture and household effects, came onto the market, the extent of which still cannot be precisely estimated. The enormous change in ownership due to the "Aryanisation" of a large number of companies has not yet been fully processed, let alone compensated for by restitution.

In addition to the laws enacted immediately after the National Socialist seizure of power to exclude the Jewish population, such as the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service of April 7, 1933 (RGBl. I, 1933, p. 175) or the Reich Citizenship Law of September 15, 1935 (RGBl. I, 1935, p. 1146), which drove many Jewish citizens into emigration, it was above all the numerous fiscal measures that increasingly forced Jewish citizens out of economic life and thus forced them to sell their property, which had a considerable impact on the auction market. These measures included the extension of the 25% Reich Flight Tax as of May 18, 1934, to assets of 50,000 Reichsmarks, levies on relocation property, tax adjustment laws for domestic Jews, or the tightening of foreign exchange laws, to name just a few. In total, 96% of the assets were retained by the state upon emigration. This was followed on April 26, 1938 by the Ordinance on the Registration of the Property of Jews (RGBl. I, 1938, p. 414f) and, with the Progromnacht of November 9, 1938, by the transition to the state-controlled "forced aryanisation" of Jewish tradesmen and the Ordinance on the Atonement of Jews of German Nationality of November 12, 1938 (RGBl. I, 1938, p. 1579), which forced the Jewish population to pay the so-called "Jewish Property Levy" totaling 1.12 billion Reichsmarks. With the Ordinance on the Use of Jewish Property of December 3, 1938 (RGBl. I, 1938, p. 1709f.), objects of value and art could only be sold up to a limit of 1,000 Reichsmarks; higher amounts had to be deposited in a blocked account. On February 21, 1939, the compulsory levy of gold, silver and platinum as well as precious stones and pearls was introduced, for which the material value of one tenth of the market price was paid out (RGBl. I, 1939, p. 282). The Fuehrer Decree of May 29, 1941 (RGBl. I, 1941, p. 303) laid the legal basis for the confiscation and realisation of the assets of enemies of the Reich, and as of November 25, 1941, the XI Ordinance to the Reich Citizenship Law (RGBl. I, 1941, pp. 722f.) forfeited all assets as soon as a German Jew crossed the Reich border. With the deprivation of citizenship rights and the deportation that began in Germany in October 1941, all assets were finally forfeited to the state.

In addition to the auction goods recorded in auction catalogues, most of which were high-value art objects that financially justified costly printing, numerous auctions took place that were not recorded in catalogues. For example, numerous auction lists have been preserved in the Berlin State Archives, as they were required by the Auction Law and were used to record the auction goods for official approval, but were not published in the form of a printed catalogue. The auction house Union, for example, published 48 catalogues for auctions, but in the Berlin State Archives there are about 362 auction lists of this auction house. The Stuttgart or Mannheim auction house Dr. Fritz Nagel boasted its hundredth auction in 1937, while at that time only nine auction catalogues of the company are published. In addition, Der deutsche Versteigerer contains countless complaints about the need to put a stop to the unpleasantness of unannounced auctions and house auctions, which were held entirely without lists and approval procedures.

With the Eleventh Decree to the Reich Citizenship Law in 1941 and the deportation of German Jews, the tax offices, to which these assets fell, also increasingly acted directly as public auctioneers, which they in turn entrusted to various art and other auctioneers. Bailiffs competed with the auction houses for the division and sale of the plundered property that was under the control of the tax offices. Thus, Der deutsche Versteigerer reports that the Reich Minister of Finance was approached in order to reach as many members as possible and to prevent bailiffs from being entrusted with conducting these auctions. The Reich Minister had declared the auctioneers responsible. The handling of "art objects from confiscated and forfeited property" was regulated by a decree of November 4, 1941, according to which "art objects, (paintings, sculptures, etc.), which are not to be regarded as inferior products from the outset" could not be sold directly, but had to be reported to the regional management of the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts, which could confiscate them or release them for auction or sale if they were of museum interest.

At the same time, in many cities the Gestapo also took over the auctioning of the possessions of both Jews deported from Germany and Jews deported and murdered from the occupied eastern and western territories, known as the M-Aktion. According to a list compiled by the U.S. military authorities, some 15,000 auctions of movable property belonging to emigrants and deportees had taken place from 1941 onwards. In Hamburg, for example, 5,000 removal containers belonging to emigrants were broken open in the port of Hamburg, appraised, reserved for state purposes, or auctioned off. Some of the auctions were carried out by the customs authorities, some were commissioned to independent auctioneers, and some were entrusted to the Hamburg auction houses. Numerous such auctions are also documented from Cologne and Hesse.

Despite the limitations of the statements about the auction market of the years 1930 to 1945, which result from the intertwining of auction business, art trade, liquidation of apartments and the many institutions involved in the machinery of expropriation, the recording of the auction catalogues and auction houses of this period offers a chance to gain an initial overview of the auction market, which should be made more precise in the coming years through specific individual investigations, such as on the type and quantity of the auctioned goods or on concrete price developments. While insights into the activities of a few firms in the art trade, for example, can only be gained from isolated surviving account books, the publication of auction catalogues from these years makes it possible to trace some tendencies in the art market, some of which contradict or differentiate from previously assumed trend movements. In the following, we will take a look at the development of the publication figures of auction catalogues and auction houses in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
(Astrid Bähr, 2013)

Bopf 2004, S. 300ff.
Bruhns 2001, S. 436f.
Der deutsche Versteigerer 7, 1936, Feb., S. 1-5
Der deutsche Versteigerer 8, 1937, Feb./März, S. 21-24
Dreßen 1998, S. 45ff.
Meinl/Zwilling 2004, S. 158ff., 196ff.
Nagel 1999, S. 13