Here is one of the most entertaining, and revealing, letters I have ever received. It discusses certain activities between an advanced collector and one of the biggest dealers in German militaria.
About a year and a half ago, I was contacted by a Mr. Robert Johnson of Germania International, which is located in Lakemont, Georgia. He said he had heard that I knew a good deal about the artwork of Adolf Hitler and asked me to come over to see him and look at two Hitler watercolors.
I drove to Lakemont, Georgia, a small, very rural town in northeast Georgia, noteworthy mainly for an enormous silver-painted cross planted by the local natives on the top of a local hill.
I examined the watercolors and listened as he explained that they had come from the Billy Price collection, were in the Price book on Hitler paintings and were very valuable.
They were not original Hitler paintings and their inclusion in the Price book was a strong indication of their misattribution.
When I informed Mr. Johnson of this, he became very upset and then wondered if, perhaps, I might be willing to authenticate them for a fee.
I declined politely, saying I would think about it.
Mr. Johnson, who owns three very nice houses in the area, subsequently showed me all over his homes and his storage areas for militaria items
In one instance, I saw a china plate that was of interest to me. I collect Wehrmacht commemorative china and I picked it up and asked him what he wanted for it.
He looked at the plate and said it was a fake because it had a green shamrock on it and was obviously made in Ireland.
Because, as he said, it was a cheap fake, he gave it to me as a present.
I never bothered to tell him that a green shamrock was the proper German divisional sign for the wartime unit the plate commemorated.
A few minutes later, he took me into another basement room that was stacked full of large oil portraits of such prominent Germans as Hitler, Rommel, Bismarck and others.
These, he said, were made to order for him in China.
There was a wooden table in one corner of the room with a number of flat metal cases stacked on it and beneath it was an old and rather large rectangular brown leather suitcase.
I opened one of the cases on the table, thinking there might be decorations or daggers inside but instead of these, there were stacks of gold bars issued by a Swiss bank.
There were five cases full of these.
When I commented on this treasure trove to Mr. Johnson, he said,
‘You ain’t seen nothing yet, my friend,’ and he pulled the suitcase out from under the table and opened it with a laugh. It was stuffed full of bank packs of one hundred dollar bills.
This wealth was certainly impressive, much more so than rooms full of modern replicas of rare items of militaria, but I was astonished that Mr. Johnson would reveal these to me as we had never met before and I had earlier been disinclined to help him sell his counterfeit paintings.
This was only the first act to what proved to be one of the most entertaining afternoons I have ever spent.
In another room, I noted a dress uniform of the German army hanging on a door next to another uniform. I went over and looked at it while he was arguing on the telephone with a very unhappy customer.
One look at the uniform and a subsequent examination of the inside of both the tunic and pants was enough to get my entire attention.
It was a nearly mint set, for a very rare unit and with the name of the famous owner inside on a tailor’s label.
I asked Mr. Johnson about the piece and he waved his hand and said.
‘These parade pieces never sell.’
I told him I wanted to buy it.
He said he had to consider how much he wanted for it.
It took him six months to make up his mind on the price, changing it every three or four days.
Then, six months later, the person who had driven over with me on the trip to visit Johnson, spoke with him on the phone on another matter and, unknown to me, at one point told Mr. Johnson I had a ‘rare, original Hitler painting’ in my office.
Immediately after this, Mr. Johnson, brimming with good will, rang me up and said he was now willing to deal with the uniform I so badly wanted.
He told me he had heard, from ‘a private source,’ that I had a Hitler painting and he was willing to trade this uniform ‘straight across’ for the uniform.
I thought initially that he was having some kind of a fit because I had discovered during the intervening months that Mr. Johnson often said things that were not very accurate.
He had told me, for example, that he was from a “noble Scots family” and that one of his relatives was an ADC to German field marshal and later commanded a ‘Cossack division’ during the war.
I found out later that his father was an Irish Orangeman from Belfast, Northern Ireland and that his vaunted “German” relative never existed other than in his imagination.
But he duly showed up at my house in what looked like a giant milk truck with a Mercedes emblem on the front.
And he brought the uniform, carrying it up the front walk, dress braid flapping in the wind.
He and his wife, both published experts on Hitler’s art work, spent about three minutes in my living room before demanding to see the Hitler picture.
I took them to my office and he snatched it from the wall and examined it, with his wife beside him, under a strong light for about ten minutes. I was watching them from across the room and noted that they nodded to each other, smirked, winked and did elbow nudgings.
Mr. Johnson then said to me, ‘We got a deal here!’ and gave the picture to his wife to lock up in the truck.
He was very pleased with his trade because the picture, well-known and established in period publications, would have been worth far, far more on the market than the uniform.
I had never mentioned this picture, which a friend gave me for Christmas years before, to anyone, but as the result of my neighbor’s unsolicited but glowing praise, I had gained a wonderful object for my collection and made Mr. Johnson, and his wife, absolutely ecstatic at the thought of vast riches pending. But when his prospective customer reneged on the sale, he then tried to reverse the deal by claiming, without any proof whatsoever, that the painting was a 1935 art print by Heinrich Hoffman which would have been worth about as much as a dinner at a local Chinese buffet.
To say Mr. Johnson was unhappy would be an understatement.
It is regretfully expected that in commercial dealings a clever businessman will happily delude a customer but never a good idea for such a person to delude themselves.”