“Art Theft” and Auschwitz [updated]

By now, virtually everyone has heard that the notorious “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign that loomed over the gates to Auschwitz was inexplicably stolen on Friday morning. It’s generally believed that the heist was carried out by some sort of neo-Nazi outfit looking either to defile what has become something akin to a secular pilgrimage site or to simply obtain what amounts to a Nazi fetish object. Some commenters on the BBC website hold to the bizarre notion that the Israelis are misinterpreting the theft as anti-Semitic, preferring the alternate explanation that scrap metal commands a high price, and that the sign was stolen by Polish meth-heads, or something.

The Huffington Post’s Alison Stein Wellner, on the other hand, wonders if the theft might be a case of “art theft”:

There’s an established genre of “outsider art”, art produced by people who are institutionalized for various reasons, ranging from mental health to convicted criminals.


The field of industrial design was only just emerging at the time of the second World War, and so object likes signs, like light fixtures, like architectural details, were not considered “art” per se. And yet, when I visited Auschwitz a couple of years ago, I was struck by the Art Moderne influences in the sign itself — take another look at it — as well as in the concrete posts that held the electrified, barbed wire, the light posts and so on. Prisoners built the camp, including the sign, and the aesthetic of the time influenced their work. They were working under duress, and I’m of course not suggesting that these pieces can be divorced from their dark context. But could it be that the person or persons behind the theft were thinking along those lines?

On the one hand, it seems fairly certain (to me at least) that this was not in fact the work of art thieves. On the other hand, the fact that there’s a market for “outsider” and Holocaust-inspired art (not to mention the bizarre and ironic pop-culture celebration of figures like Charles Manson) lends a certain air of plausibility to the idea. In a sense, though, the idea that there’s some “collector” out there who might be willing to pay for the Auschwitz sign is far more unsettling than the idea that a lunkish skinhead might steal it to hang it up on the wall next to his photographs of Hitler or Reinhard Heydrich and his replica Kar98.

At what point does the profane become “art”? At what point do the lunatic scribblings of a serial killer or the sign “welcoming” the damned to the most infamous site of industrial murder in human history become collector’s items? And if society is nauseated by the thought that some swastika-tattooed kid who has a hard-on for Hitler, what does it think about the (inevitably rich) “art collector” who hires people to steal artifacts from Auschwitz?


The sign has been found, cut into three parts. Five men have apparently been arrested in connection to the crime, but no motive has yet been given.


2 Responses to ““Art Theft” and Auschwitz [updated]”

  1. 1 CJ Ciaramella
    December 21, 2009 at 5:22 am

    See, I imagine it was like that episode of The Simpsons where Bart and his friends buy the Radioactive Man #1 comic but then realize they have to share it. Y’know, except with Neo-Nazis.

  2. 2 Vincent
    December 21, 2009 at 5:57 am

    Wasn’t that a “Twilight Zone” episode?

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