Authenticity and forgery is something often discussed in Art Museums. Occasionally it is something we must consider at The Tank Museum.
Back in the early 1970s, The Tank Museum acquired a set of drawings featuring German tanks and bearing the signatures of both Adolf Hitler and Field Marshal Rommel.
The Tank Museum paid £150 for the six images, which attracted considerable media interest at the time with the BBC and the New York Times among those reporting on the sale.
The illustrations were on display in the Museum’s World War Two hall for around 30 years due to the renown of their signatories.
But now, we’re pretty sure they’re fake. Here’s why.
David, our Curator, has a background in fine Art and recalled on his appointment in the early 2000’s his impression of the images being slightly ‘off’ from what he’d expect from the wartime German style. So, he looked back at the records dating from the time of the purchase.
The vendor had stated that the images were recovered from a Chateau near Rheims in 1944, suggesting either that the images were to be used in a book to be written by Rommel or that they were drawn by a member of Rommel’s staff.
Quite how (or why) Hitler’s signature was obtained is less clear, but the vendor wrote to several organisations and individuals to ascertain their authenticity. We hold this correspondence as part of the purchase documentation.
The Weiner Holocaust Library of London thought the drawings and signatures to be “completely authentic”. The German Defence Attaché in London was asked to approach the Afrika-Corps Association and received a reply from General Westphal (who was close to Rommel) saying that the signatures “could [my emphasis] be that of the Field Marshal”. He also commented that both he and Rommel had “other worries” at that time which may well have prevented him from commissioning such artwork for literary projects.
The vendor also wrote to General Horrocks (of XXX Corps fame) and Lord Louis Mountbatten to secure further assurance. Mountbatten replied that he had no connection with German tanks or with “that part of the war” going on to add that from his perspective as a senior wartime commander that “it would make absolutely no sense that I should sign a photograph”.
It appeared that the matter of authenticity wasn’t something entirely satisfied at the time of purchase. As the museum displays were updated, the images were put into storage. They were largely forgotten about until David received a phone call a few weeks ago.
An auction house had been offered an almost identical set of images to sell. They had doubts about their provenance, so wanted to seek the opinion of The Tank Museum. The emergence of these items cast even further doubt on the authenticity of those in the Museum collection, and caution was advised.
In the meantime, the auctioneer had also contacted a signature expert for his assessment. The conclusion was that both signatures were “clear forgeries”. He wrote, “One of the first give-aways was that Hitler never signed any letter or document with just his surname.”
“The signatures, particularly that of Rommel, did not flow naturally and looked quite laboured in their formation. “
“They’re quite elaborate forgeries, the likes of which I haven’t encountered before.”
Of course, as forgeries the historical significance of these items is almost entirely diminished.
What this shows is that the meaning and relevance of a museum object is always subject to change as new information or source material becomes available. This was true when we were made aware of an infantryman’s first-hand account of an action that took place in Tunisia in 1943 which changed our understanding of how Tiger 131 was captured.
It works both ways of course, as items we assume to be fake may in future be reconsidered with new evidence and proved authentic.
So, we’ll be keeping hold of those images just in case…
Find out more about the capture of Tiger 131, in the ‘Tiger 131: A Twist in the Tale’ documentary.