With a black swastika gripped by an imperial eagle, the little gold wristwatch certainly appears authentic, if chilling.

The auction house traced the artifact to a watchmaker in Nazi Germany. The lacquered initials read A.H., the same as history’s villain. For sale: Adolf Hitler’s wristwatch.

When the watch went to auction this summer, James Supp, an appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow,” studied the photos online. Could it be real? Hitler wasn’t known to wear a wristwatch. Then, in late July, the auction house announced a winning bid of $1.1 million.

It was the biggest sale yet for Basil “Bill” Panagopulos, 64, the man behind Alexander Historical Auctions LLC in Cecil County. With splashy sales and a deluge of publicity, his little auction house south of Elkton has built an international reputation, albeit a controversial one, as a leading purveyor of Hitler’s possessions.

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The Führer’s blood-red telephone ($200,000), his ruby-encrusted ring (nearly $66,000), even his mistress’s pink lace slip ($3,000).

“Toilet seat looted from Adolf Hitler’s Bavarian retreat could fetch £15k at auction” read a headline in the British tabloids last year (about $17,000).

The attention has brought Panagopulos condemnation from Jewish leaders and calls to boycott his business. In the small community of antique militaria dealers, the attention has brought him skeptics, too.

“When you start to have extraordinary objects with extraordinary claims, you need extraordinary proof,” says Supp, of “Antiques Roadshow,” who runs an antiquarian consulting firm in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

How does an amateur historian on Maryland’s Eastern Shore manage to sell Hitler’s underpants? (For nearly $7,000.)

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Panagopulos, ever the showman, puts his business plan bluntly: “Release [sensational Hitler item] to the press. Press goes bananas. Get more stuff.”

However crude, this strategy has made him money. When, say, a woman searches online to sell her grandfather’s WWII trophies in the attic, she can read news articles about the time Panagopulos auctioned Hitler’s top hat.

In this way, he’s listed Hitler’s black frock coat, the globe-shaped bar from Hitler’s yacht, the dictator’s personal copy of “Mein Kampf,” not to mention mistress Eva Braun’s stockings — each fetching thousands of dollars. Buyers pay the auction house as much as 25% on the sale price.

A replica Nazi uniform on a mannequin inside Bill Panagopulos’ auction house in Chesapeake City on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. (Joe Lamberti for The Baltimore Banner)

“There is no historical value to the kind of Nazi memorabilia that he peddles,” says Menachem Rosensaft, an attorney and member of the World Jewish Congress executive committee.

The son of two survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, Rosensaft teaches courses on the laws of genocide at Cornell and Columbia law schools.

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“The man has a constitutional right to sell, but his ability to sell this material is a constitutionally protected perversion,” Rosensaft says. “The only thing one can do legitimately is to boycott his auctions and to expose him for what he is. He is a profiteer of the materials of the vilest regime probably in the history of humankind.”

Hitler’s million-dollar wristwatch sold to an anonymous bidder and brought Panagopulos headlines in the BBC, The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, the Associated Press and more. One month later, the phones are still ringing at Alexander Historical Auctions.

“I got offered so much stuff after the sale of that watch that we can’t even handle all the leads,” Panagopulos says.

He explains this one afternoon in his office above a boutique in the little bed-and-breakfast town of Chesapeake City. He rents the second floor, and cardboard boxes of collectibles fill the space. He identifies two framed papers on his cluttered desk as a decree committing Louis XVI to death by guillotine and a handwritten note from the French painter Renoir.

Panagopulos lifts a dusty, green bottle labeled “Old Scotch Whisky.”

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“This is booze Rommel had,” he says, of German Army officer Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox.”

A native New Yorker who settled in Chesapeake City eight years ago, Panagopulos doesn’t apologize for his trade, but insists he’s helping to preserve evidence of Nazi war crimes.

On the wall hangs a plaque memorializing the 1943 German massacre of Kalavryta, Greece, his family’s village.

“The guy who ordered the whole operation, I have his uniform, his visor cap and dagger. It will all be donated,” Panagopulos says.

Bill Panagopulos at his desk inside his auction house in Chesapeake City on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. (Joe Lamberti for The Baltimore Banner)

His father fought the Germans with the Greek Navy before settling in New York and starting a shipping company, he says. In the 1990s, the family sold out of the company and Panagopulos looked for work. He sank money into two failed liquor stores, he says, and learned the stock market was best left to the professionals.

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Inspired by the World War II stories of his father, he began collecting military autographs. First, Civil War generals, then WWII figures such as President Eisenhower and Gen. George Patton. The first mail catalogue for Alexander Auctions, as he called it, was limited to a handful of pages offering signatures of historical figures on par with Al Capone and Mother Teresa.

Meanwhile, the market for historic militaria was awash with Nazi memorabilia. The Third Reich issued patches, medals and daggers to everyone from the generals to the milkmen; perhaps no empire had more swag. While most auction houses avoided swastikas, Panagopulos saw opportunity.

Collectors have long debated the morality of dealing in Nazi merchandise. John Harris, the owner of Caplan’s Auction & Appraisal Co., has traveled across Europe and Great Britain buying furniture, antiques and jewelry to sell at his Howard County auction house. He said there’s plenty of demand for souvenirs from the war.

Harris, for one, draws a firm line at memorabilia from the Third Reich.

“We would refuse,” he said. “We’re a Jewish-owned firm. So we do not handle any of that.”

Public opinion has shifted in the decades since U.S. soldiers came home with Nazi keepsakes. A famous Stars and Stripes newspaper cartoon depicts front-line soldiers collecting Luger pistols from the battlefield, while soldiers in the rear are left to buy them. A Fresno Bee article tells of a California boy who sold the most war bonds and received a Nazi helmet as his prize. Now, the last of the WWII veterans are dying, and the box in the attic carries the moral weight of history.

“Most of the veterans who collected that material first-hand are no longer with us. So we have lost some cultural perspective on the whole purpose of collecting war souvenirs,” says Jeff Shrader, owner of Advance Guard Militaria in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. “If you’re unfamiliar with the hobby, or you don’t have a World War II veteran in your life, it is very easy and natural to look at the hobby of collecting World War II things with a raised eyebrow and just assume it to be related to a modern political context, with the rise of antisemitism and all of the other bad things.”

The biggest auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s won’t touch souvenirs from Nazi Germany, Panagopulos says, though neither firm responded to questions. The website eBay banned Nazi items more than a decade ago. Mindful of public opinion, many collectors who buy and sell Nazi memorabilia do so quietly. Their websites often require visitors to register and log in before browsing.

In this business of discretion, Panagopulos is a brash and singular figure.

He maintains that his buyers — Jewish men and women at times, he says — want to preserve the historical record, however awful. Panagopulos insists he doesn’t sell to neo-Nazis or Hitler supplicants.

“They’re too ignorant and too poor to buy this material,” he says, his oft-repeated remark.

His defense rings hollow to Jewish leaders who have watched Panagopulos cash in off Hitler’s intimates. Rosensaft urged collectors to boycott Alexander Historical Auctions in 2011 when Panagopulos listed the journals of Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi physician known as “the Angel of Death.”

The European Jewish Association issued an open letter in July urging Panagopulos to forgo the sale of Hitler’s wristwatch.

“It’s simply despicable that he keeps on going,” Rosensaft says. “Unfortunately, what’s more despicable and more reprehensible is that he has buyers.”

Adolf Hitler’s ceremonial desk set, which recently sold for over $300,000, inside Bill Panagopulos’ auction house in Chesapeake City, Md. on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022.
Adolf Hitler’s ceremonial desk set, which recently sold for over $300,000, inside Bill Panagopulos’ auction house in Chesapeake City on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. (Joe Lamberti for The Baltimore Banner)

In his office, Panagopulos is asked if there’s anything he would not sell. He says he received, unsolicited, an envelope with small fragments of bones from the concentration camps. It’s illegal in Maryland to buy or sell human remains.

“I sent them to a rabbi for proper burial.”

Who was the rabbi?

“I’ve forgotten his name,” he says, “and the bones are lost in the mail.”

Some dealers have watched Panagopulos’ rise in the business with skepticism. He’s become a favorite target of a journalist and poet in the Netherlands who writes a blog dedicated to exposing what he believes are Hitler fakes.

No sooner had WWII ended than an underground trade emerged for Hitler souvenirs. The Führer’s signature is famously sloppy and inconsistent. It remains a common con to buy cheap watercolor paintings from the early 1900s, scribble A.H. in the corner, then sell them as Hitler originals for a premium.

“Hitler artifacts are some of the most faked items on the planet,” says Supp, in Idaho.

Telephone hobbyists challenged the authenticity of the battered red telephone that Panagopulos sold for $200,000. Engraved with a swastika and Hitler’s name, the old phone was indeed German-made, but the handset was British, concluded one Dutch collector. The plastic was painted red, not dyed.

According to Panagopulos, the heirloom came from the family of Brigadier Sir Ralph Rayner, a British signal officer, among the first to enter Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. A 1977 newspaper obituary shows the British officer holding “Hitler’s telephone” to his ear.

“I would need an explanation to be comfortable with why the chancellor of Germany would have a telephone made up of mixed German and British parts, when the Third Reich is perfectly capable of making telephones,” says Supp, who has not examined the phone. “I’m not saying it’s impossible; I just need an explanation.”

The phone would not pass muster at Hermann Historica in Munich, Germany, says Bernhard Pacher, a consultant and lawyer at the renowned militaria auction house.

German laws forbid the display and trade of items with swastikas and Nazi runes except for educational or historical purposes. This essentially outlaws the possession and trade of Hitler fakes. Collectors caught with fraudulent Nazi militaria can face fines and, in rare cases, prison time. The country also has some of the most sophisticated Hitler forgers.

This means German dealers set high standards for Hitler memorabilia. Pacher said Hermann Historica declines 60% of the Third Reich material it receives.

Pacher usually declines items without original documentation such as a delivery note or captured papers with the serial number listed on the item.

“We really have to make sure what we sell is the original, or you’re very quickly with one foot in jail,” he says. “I’d rather turn the thing down if it ‘might’ be right.”

Pacher said he would decline the gold wristwatch Panagopulos sold in July.

“People tend to buy the story more than the item,” he says. “The I-want-to-have-that emotion overrides logic.”

The watch was traced to the German firm of Andreas Huber, a must-have brand for Nazi officers, according to Panagopulos. The movement was made by the respected Swiss company Jaeger-LeCoultre.

French soldiers raided Hitler’s vacation home in the Bavarian Alps in May 1945. According to Panagopulos, one sergeant recovered the watch, brought it home and later sold it to his cousin. The cousin’s grandchild, decades later, consigned the watch to the auction house.

Panagopulos asked Jaeger-LeCoultre, but the Swiss manufacturer found no records of the watch. The Huber factory was bombed and burned during the war — no records there. The watch traces to Nazi Germany, bears Hitler’s name and three milestone dates in his life. Its direct connection to the notorious dictator, however, rests on the family’s story.

For his part, Panagopulos remains undeterred by skeptics and critics. He says competitors are out to make their reputations at his expense.

Anyway, he’s already eyeing the next big sale for Alexander Historical Auctions.

Just the other day, a woman showed up with a little wooden box and told him she held shoulder boards from the uniform of none other than the “Desert Fox.”

“It’s insane. Who knows what else is going to come in?” Panagopulos says. “We’re just getting started.”


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