`Mein Kampf' - going, going, gone

Chris Bready has Hitler, Mencken on his auction list next week

Conversations

June 19, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Talk about eclectic. In the basement office of the Baltimore Book Co., Chris Bready shows off a framed picture of baseball legend Rogers Hornsby (the signature is faked), a Simpsons wall clock (Homer's eyes follow a circling doughnut), and a hockey puck bearing the logo of the old Baltimore Skipjacks.

"Everybody needs a place where they can keep the stuff they love the most," says Bready, 56, who has run his auction house out of this cluttered North Charles Street location for the past 16 years.

Luckily for Bready, when it comes to business, he doesn't rely on the sort of kitsch only a collector could love. In four auctions each year, he sells maps, books, letters, photographs and other stuff of historical interest. But few items have tested the elasticity of his tastes like one up for sale at his June 27 auction at the Timonium Holiday Inn Select: an autographed copy of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.

"It's kind of a delicate subject," he says of the literary rant, published in the 1920s, that laid out Hitler's vision for the "Aryan" race and served as a blueprint for his plan to exterminate the Jews. "Normally, I reject anything that has to do with the Nazis, but these guys [Hitler and the book's first owner] were so high up. The way they altered history transcended their behavior."

The book is part of an auction that coincidentally includes more than 100 letters by H.L. Mencken, several of which confirm the Baltimore satirist's reputation as an anti-Semite.

The pending sale epitomizes the variety of interests Bready has developed in a 25-year career. It includes a 17th-century map of the Chesapeake, a folio of William Blake illustrations and photos of Mencken's 1930 wedding.

It also prompted a chat with The Sun about his most controversial items.

How unusual is this Mein Kampf?

Not many noteworthy signed copies appear in the auction records. Only about five [presentation copies] have been sold in the U.S. and [United Kingdom] in the past 30 years. I've listed it in the catalog at between $3,000 and $6,000, but I gave up on guessing what prospective buyers are going do a long time ago.

What sets the book apart?

It's signed to one Richard Walter Darre, a rather unpleasant individual. He was in the SS, a friend of [SS leader Heinrich] Himmler's; he was Hitler's minister of agriculture. Darre was responsible, among other things, for the concept of Lebensraum. The idea was, "Hey, once we occupy territories in the East, let's kick the Slavic farmers off the land and replace them with [German] farmers, who will do it right."

Where'd you get the book?

From a Baltimore-area man, a fellow in his 90s now who is about to enter a retirement home. He was a GI during World War II, and he happened upon it during the Allied liberation of Germany. You know, it was like any war; the conquerors helped themselves.

How can you tell it's authentic?

First, I trust the origin. The ownership is without question because it's also signed by the person it was inscribed to. And it has been in the same hands, physically, since the end of the war. Also, I've seen and handled Hitler stuff over the years. I know his [real] material from the fakes.

How important are the Mencken letters?

If anybody wanted to publish the full correspondence of Mencken, it'd be like the letters of George Washington - 30 volumes. ... But these are interesting because they're written to the man, Herbert Parrish, who performed Henry's wedding [in 1930].

And they're not completely flattering?

There's a letter here in which he writes, "all [this] shows is the singular stupidity of the Jews." He was referring, in the 1930s, to an anti-Nazi bill. Now that we've all gotten past all the idolatry of the earliest Mencken biographies, we can see the guy's got warts just like anybody else. He's human.

Are there items you would refuse to sell on ethical grounds?

I'm like a lawyer; I can't choose clients based on whether they're nice guys or not. Generally, I turn down all Nazi material. But it's my obligation to put up material for which there should be competition.

How do you decide what to write in the auction catalog?

You figure out what questions should be asked, and you find out the answers and report them. Take this volume of Mein Kampf. It's signed to Walter Darre. Who was he? What was his connection to Hitler? How well did Hitler know him? You ask those questions and find answers.

How significant was Darre?

He doesn't show up that much in the Third Reich literature, but he was a real good buddy of Himmler's. ... In the end, he fell out of favor, probably because there were a couple of bad harvests. He got kicked out of his job and was prosecuted at Nuremberg. But the distillation of his theories was the Final Solution.

How do you decide what's going to be in an auction?

These past few months, I must have looked at 120,000 or more books. I ended up with 380-some lots in this sale. [It's] what I think is of sufficient competitive interest and value to make it worth going through all this. As to what the final price will be - you've got me.

It's really that uncertain?

It's like [a baseball game]: You know who the starting pitchers are, you have an idea what the lineups are going to be, you know what happened in the first two games. ... It's not that anything can happen, but I have no control over how people spend their money.

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