State halts its sale of Hitlerian items on Internet auctions

As the film version of the Mel Brooks musical “The Producers” hits theaters, moviegoers may find themselves humming “Springtime for Hitler” on the way home. But it isn’t springtime for Hitler anymore on an Internet auction page affiliated with the California state controller’s office.

Hundreds of items left unclaimed in safe deposit boxes and turned over to the state are currently for sale on You could, if you so chose, make a bid on a 1919 class ring or a pair of pearl earrings turned over by the controller’s office, or lay down money for a Chevy Caprice owned by the city of Ft. Worth, Texas.

Until recently you could also bid on Hitlerian paraphernalia put up for bid by the controller’s office. But this practice ceased when word trickled to local newspapers and television stations, which ran the story, leaving the controller’s office red-faced and searching for an explanation. The outcry led to the removal of a copy of “Mein Kampf” from the site in recent weeks.

“The controller has an established policy against the selling of this sort of material on the Web site. What happened here is regrettable and a case of policy not being applied,” said Yusuf Robb, a spokesman in Controller Steve Westley’s office.

As for how Hitlerian stamps and a Nazi iron cross found their way online — and were purchased for, respectively, $85 and $80 last month — Robb doesn’t know.

“We’re not sure how that happened yet, but what we are doing is working with staff and working with independent appraisers.”

That Hitlerian paraphernalia could slip onto the state Internet represents a “lack of sensitivity,” said Jonathan Bernstein, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. Should such items come into the state’s hands, he’d prefer they be sold or donated to a museum rather than be put up for bid on an open market.

“If they were selling these items to a Neo-Nazi somewhere, that’s obviously not a good thing.”

Bernstein said that, in his discussions with Westley’s office, it was noted that there is no written policy regarding what can and cannot be sold on the Internet. Bernstein urged them to go beyond using common sense and come up with a codified set of acceptable materials.

Robb could not disclose who purchased the Nazi stamps and cross or whether it was a private individual or institution that made the buy.

He noted that overwhelming volume may have played a part in the misstep; as many as 120 items at a time are up for bid on the Web site. The state is currently holding nearly $5 billion in unclaimed funds contained within 7.6 million accounts. California holds the unclaimed funds in perpetuity, but when unable to locate the rightful owner or his or her heirs, it will auction off tangible goods and place the money in a perpetual account.

The state, Robb stresses, made no money off the sale of Hitlerian paraphernalia or any of the items it sells. In recent years, the state has returned a watch valued at up to $1.5 million to its rightful owner. Other treasures unearthed from old safe deposit boxes and returned to individuals include $250,000 worth of antique coins and an 88-carat sapphire ring.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.