A trove of purported Nazi memorabilia slated for an exhibition at the Holocaust Museum of Buenos Aires this December consists principally of forgeries, according to a report compiled by an art historian and the German Federal Police. The study was authored by Dr. Stephan Klingen and reviewed by a commission of 32 international experts. The collection of more than 70 objects, which includes war medals, busts of Hitler, a skull-measuring device, and other tools engraved with swastikas and National Socialist slogans and inscriptions, was seized by Argentine Federal Police and Interpol agents in June 2017 from the residence and business of Carlos Olivares, an antiques dealer, in the affluent suburbs of Olivos and Beccar in Buenos Aires. Experts concluded that the majority of the objects were altered in the postwar period to forge a connection to the Nazi party and thus assign them collectible value.
Dr. Klingen, who heads the Photo Study Collection at the Central Institute for Art History in Munich and works intensively on provenance research projects, along with a representative from the German Federal Criminal Police (BKA)’s Art Crime Unit, traveled to Buenos Aires to inspect the objects in March 2018. Among their findings corroborating their initial suspicion that the items were falsified were multiple misspellings in German, misused or wrongly contextualized National Socialist symbols, and errors in the names of Nazi-era institutions.
The team ultimately named only 10 objects as authentic, but Dr. Klingen qualified this determination in an interview with Hyperallergic: “[Those 10 objects] at least date from the National Socialist time, or the proof that they are fakes could only have been possible with invasive material tests.” The examination performed in Argentina included measurements, photography, and documentation of the objects, but no “invasive methods,” in Dr. Klingen’s words, because Olivares’s lawyer did not allow them to perform such tests.
Despite Klingen and his team’s findings, the Argentine Federal Police handed the objects to the Holocaust Museum, which planned to include some of them in the inaugural exhibition for its newly revamped building, opening December 1. When the objects were initially seized in 2017, the museum sent a letter to the judge assigned to the case, Sandra Arroyo Salgado, proposing the institution as a possible home for them once investigation on the case was finalized.
“We are completely astonished by the plans to give these objects to a museum, because we think they are mostly fake,” said Dr. Klingen. He also believes some of his comments in the report have been misrepresented by the museum. In a press release published by the museum on October 25, for example, Klingen is quoted as saying that the alterations to the objects “do not change their historical-cultural significance,” and that several institutions in Europe may be interested in acquiring them.
“What we have said is that some German museums have interest in the objects, but not for their historical significance,” Dr. Klingen corrected. “Only for their false character. The museums in Germany may want to have the objects and include them in an exhibition to make it clear that they are fake.”
Jonathan Karszenbaum, Executive Director of the museum, said in a phone call with Hyperallergic that while the museum was chosen to be the national custodian of these objects, its administration had not received the complete report, nor the objects themselves, until late September. “We had received only bits and pieces; we knew that some of the items had been altered or adulterated, some were fake, and others authentic,” he explained. “We were not involved in the investigation, nor was anyone from the museum called upon as an expert on the case.”
The museum’s research team is now in the process of sorting through the group of objects to determine if any could be salvaged for the exhibition — not for their authenticity, but for their potential value as pedagogical tools to educate the public on Nazi ideology, explained Karszenbaum. He cites as an example the skull-measuring device, a tool that contributed to the development of scientific racism invoked by Nazis. “The fact that swastikas were later added to ‘Nazify’ the object does not invalidate their condition or function.” (It’s worth noting that Dr. Klingen’s report describes the instrument as made of brass, while models from the Nazi epoch would have been made of steel, and it thus probably pre-dates the National Socialist years.)
Karszenbaum also laments that media attention to the case is overshadowing the museum’s inaugural exhibition, which has been in the works for over two years. According to Karszenbaum, the show will gather documents, photographs, interactive installations, and research material belonging to the museum’s collection, and was conceived of completely independently of the discovery of the objects in 2017.
The new museum will have nearly 5,000 feet of exhibition space and will house the testimonies of Holocaust survivors who arrived in Argentina, recorded by the Shoah Foundation. During Karszenbaum’s tenure as director, which began in 2016, the museum has averaged around 38,000 visitors per year, but he hopes the new and expanded design will help them reach their goal of 100,000 annual visitors.
“Our mission is to explain what the Holocaust was: the extermination of six million Jews at the hands of Nazis,” he said. “And these objects have very little to do with that.”