There is a pond, its surface stirred by the fingers of a willow tree. A spiky black mine bobs along one edge. The house is huge and modern and somehow without logic, as if wings and extensions have been appended to the main structure willy-nilly. When I visited, it was late afternoon, a winter moon climbing the sky.
WWII vehicle boneyards were essentially war machine landfills
Behind the house, apple trees hung heavy with fruit. A Krupp submarine cannon stood sentry outside the back door. One of the outer walls was set with wide maroon half-moons of iron work, inlaid with obscure runic symbols. I had first heard about Wheatcroft from my aunt Gay, who, as a rather half-hearted expat estate agent, sold him a rambling chateau near Limoges.
They subsequently enjoyed or endured a brief, doomed love affair. Despite the inevitable break-up, my father kept in touch with Wheatcroft and, several years ago, was invited to his home. It was remarkable, he said, mostly for the furniture. There were glassy eyed deer heads and tusky boars on the walls, wolf-skin rugs on the floor.
My father was a little spooked, but mostly intrigued. Darkness had fallen as we stepped into the immense, two-storey barn conversion behind his home. It was the largest of the network of buildings surrounding the house, and wore a fresh coat of paint and shiny new locks on the doors.
As we walked inside, Wheatcroft turned to me with a thin smile, and I could tell that he was excited.
The lower level of the building contained a now-familiar range of tanks and cars, including the Mercedes G4 Wheatcroft saw as a child in Monaco. It was studded with bullet holes. Bought it straight from him. In the long, gabled hall were dozens of mannequins, all in Nazi uniform. It was bubble still, the mannequins perched as if frozen in flight, a sleeping Nazi Caerleon.
One wall was taken up with machine guns, rifles and rocket launchers in serried rows. Rail after rail of uniforms marched into the distance. When I said no he offered me 30 grand for this. I asked Wheatcroft whether he was worried about what people might read into his fascination with Nazism. I want to show the next generation how it actually was. We walked around the rest of the exhibition, stopping for a moment by a nondescript green backpack. I had it developed and there were five unpublished pictures of Bergen-Belsen on it. It must have been very soon after the liberation, because there were bulldozers moving piles of bodies.
As soon as we entered through the back door, he began to apologise for the state of the place. The room was so cluttered that we could not move further than the doorway. I knew Hitler had lived there and so finally persuaded him to open it and it was exactly as it had been when Hitler slept in the room. I bought it all. We made our way through to the galleried dining room, where a wax figure of Hitler stood on the balcony, surveying us coldly.
There was a rustic, beer-hall feel to the place. On the table sat flugelhorns and euphoniums, trumpets and drums. Of course he did. I finally had it smuggled out as tractor parts to the Massey-Ferguson factory in Coventry. Even here there was a Third Reich theme — the cellar door was originally from the Berghof.
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The electricity was off in one wing of the house, and we made our way in dim light through a conservatory where rows of Hitler heads stared blindly across at each other. In a well at the bottom of a spiral staircase, Wheatcroft paused beneath a full-length portrait of Hitler. We climbed the stairs to find more pictures of Hitler on the walls, swastikas and iron crosses, a faintly Egyptian statuette given by Hitler to Peron, an oil portrait of Eva Braun signed by Hitler.
Paintings were stacked against walls, bubble wrap was everywhere. We picked our way between the artefacts, stepping over statuary and half-unpacked boxes. We passed along more shadowy corridors, through a door hidden in a bookshelf and up another winding staircase, until we found ourselves in an unexceptional bedroom, a single unshaded light in the ceiling illuminating piles of uniforms. On the walls of the room were a host of gaudy naif paintings and objects in display cases.
go here Somehow this collection of gangland trinkets and their casual brutality seemed to undermine the lofty aspirations of the rest of the collection. On the mantelpiece in the corner of the room there was a small library of books about the twins. In , Eva Braun had deposited a suitcase in a fireproof safe.
He quoted me a price, contents unseen. The case was locked with no key. We drove to Hamburg and had a locksmith open it. A pair of AH-monogrammed eyeglasses. A pair of monogrammed champagne flutes.
A painting of a Vienna cityscape by Hitler that he must have given to Eva. I was in a dream world.
The greatest find of my collecting career. Wheatcroft drove me to the station under a wide, star-filled night.
I tried to buy the house in which Hitler was born in Braunau, I thought I could move the collection there, turn it into a museum of the Third Reich. The Austrian government must have Googled my name. They said no immediately. The strange thing was not the weirdness of it all, but the normality. I had expected a closet Nazi, a wild-eyed goosestepper, and instead I had met a man wrestling with a hobby that had become an obsession and was now a millstone.
Collecting was like a disease for him, the prospect of completion tantalisingly near but always just out of reach. Many would question whether artefacts such as those in the Wheatcroft Collection ought to be preserved at all, let alone exhibited in public. It is, perhaps, the very darkness of these objects, their proximity to real evil, that attracts collectors and that keeps novelists and filmmakers returning to the years for material. In the conflicting narratives and counter-narratives of history, there is something satisfyingly simple about the evil of the Nazis, the schoolboy Manichaeism of the second world war.
Later, Wheatcroft would tell me that his earliest memory was of lining up Tonka tanks on his bedroom floor, watching the ranks of Shermans and Panzers and Crusaders facing off against each other, a childish battle of good and evil. Big-value items, but you just have to forget about that because of the sheer rarity value. His latest find, he said, was a collection of Nazi artefacts brought to his attention by someone he had met at an auction a few years back.