Flanked by a field cannon and a stuffed fisher cat, auctioneer Ethan Merrill rattled off descriptions of antiques for sale last Thursday at his family's gallery in Williston. He had items to get through and two days to move them. The first hour attracted buyers for punch bowls, duck calls and a century-old nutcracker carved in the shape of a bear. The next item proved equally valuable. As this Seven Days reporter waited for the hammer to fall, a Merrill's employee asked me not to photograph the banner or any of the seven other Nazi items listed in the auction catalog. Merrill's decision to sell the items in the first place raised eyebrows in the small Vermont antiques industry and among local Jewish leaders, who say the trade is unethical. Several of the world's top auction houses, as well as , have long refused to handle most Nazi material.
It didn't take long, however, for other antiques dealers and their friends to criticize the company. In a post of his own, Clarendon Springs-based dealer Mike Winslow recalled a Connecticut antiques show he attended in the s at which a Holocaust survivor was visibly shaken by the sight of a Nazi banner on display. Winslow asked the manager to take down the banner, and he complied.
Winslow told Seven Days he didn't buy Merrill's claim that the sale of Nazi memorabilia helps preserve the memory of their atrocities.
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In another online response, Alex Shevrin Venet of Winooski identified herself as Jewish and urged Merrill's to help donate the items to an educational institution or museum.
Merrill's deleted both comments, saying they were "tainted. Venet is an acquaintance of Bittner Antiques owner Brian Bittner, who also objected to the auction.
Bittner was the president of the Vermont Antiques Dealers' Associationa trade group that the Merrill family founded more than 50 years ago. Bittner said his Shelburne business doesn't buy or sell any objects that he considers racist, be they Nazi artifacts or Jim Crow-era products featuring demeaning caricatures of Black people.
Nazi objects can pose a particular dilemma, as much of the paraphernalia was taken and preserved by American soldiers during World War II. As more of those veterans die, their families must decide what to do with the keepsakes. Bittner and Lawrence said that dealers should explore whether an object could be of use to a museum or similar institution. If not, "the answer may be to destroy it," Lawrence said. Three Burlington rabbis who spoke to Seven Days said they objected to the sale of Nazi artifacts.
Rabbi Jan Salzman, of Congregation Ruach haMaqomsaid Nazi symbols can provoke devastating emotions in Holocaust survivors and their families.
The apparent "fetishism" involved in collecting Nazi memorabilia, she said, walks the line between the excitement of owning a piece of history and something "far more sinister" - especially as today's neo-Nazis repurpose old symbols.
In addition to two swastika banners, Merrill's July 2 auction included five daggers and knives that the Nazi party manufactured widely before and during the war.
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Ethan Merrill contends that the only people who bid on such items are military collectors who keep them in historical context. Some interested customers are also Jewish, the company noted in its statement.
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There's no way to know for sure. Many of Merrill's customers bid through third-party online platforms, giving auctioneers less interaction with their buyers. At last Thursday's event, about 20 paddle-carrying customers waited to place bids. Many of the winning bids were placed online, including those for four of the eight Nazi items. One of the in-person bidders was Sandor Farkas, a member of the Vermont Army National Guard who described himself as an orthodox Jew and a regular at Merrill's auctions.
When Farkas arrived at the auction, an employee pointed out this reporter; Farkas quickly volunteered his thoughts on the auction. Farkas said he has amassed a small collection of flags from what he considers "evil regimes," including Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Soviet Union.
The other local bidder was a Panton man, Shawn Hoague.
As this Seven Days reporter waited for the hammer to fall, a Merrill's employee asked me not to photograph the banner or any of the seven other Nazi items listed in the auction catalog. "This is. Your source for award-winning coverage of Vermont news and issues: politics, crime, business, education, economy, health care and the environment. Free Will Astrology (7/1/20) Know It All (all stories in the past 24 hours) The Daily 7 (top news headlines).
Hoague runs an antiques resale business called Dogface Supply, which specializes in militaria. Hoague told Seven Days that he began learning about Nazi equipment after he started his business a few years ago.
Hoague purchased two daggers for several hundred dollars each with plans to resell them. He said he won't sell to a potential buyer who presents as a neo-Nazi. But he also said it's not his responsibility to probe his customers' intent.
The German organization was a mandatory work program that served as a tool to militarize and indoctrinate the country's young men and women. The blade of the knife is engraved with the program's slogan, "Arbeit Adelt.
That translation is in error. The original print version of this article was headlined "Not Buying It Vermont auctioneer takes heat for sale of Nazi artifacts".
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