published Friday, February 24th, 2012

Adolf Hitler portrait from Auschwitz for sale

A portrait of Adolph Hitler will be in an estate sale Friday and Saturday.
A portrait of Adolph Hitler will be in an estate sale Friday and Saturday.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

A portrait of Adolf Hitler painted by a prisoner of war in the Auschwitz concentration camp is for sale today.

Charles Genella rescued the painting from a trash heap in 1980, paying $95 to a man who was cleaning out a home on McCallie Avenue. Genella recently passed away, and his son, Donnie, is selling the piece at an estate sale today in Hixson.

Donnie Genella said he has no idea of the painting's value, so he's not sure what its price will be.

"I've had several museums say they want it, but I'm not in a position to just give it away," he said.

He's had appraisers look at it but none was willing to offer a value.

"They're scared of it," he said. "It definitely has a negative vibe, but to me it has a positive story. Two lives were saved because of that painting."

The story behind the portrait has all the intrigue of a Hollywood movie.

When Charles Genella bought the painting, it had a significant hole in it and was covered in dirt and mold. He was intrigued by the portrait and later sought out an artist to restore it -- and it just so happens that the man he found at a gun and knife show in Cincinnati was the artist who painted the portrait four decades earlier.

According to newspaper articles detailing the unusual reunion, Vincent Gawron was a Polish artist. During his early days at the concentration camp in Poland, he was assigned manual-labor jobs and once was beaten five times in a four-hour period, according to an interview Gawron did with The Chattanooga Times in 1983.

Eventually, a guard noticed Gawron drawing with pencils and coal on a scrap of paper and offered to get him better tools if Gawron would do a portrait of him. When the guard's superior saw the finished piece, he wanted one done as well.

Gawron said he eventually was commanded by a German officer to paint a portrait of Hitler. He used another portrait for a model and never met the infamous leader, according to the 1983 story.

"This order had to be obeyed without question -- the alternative was execution," Gawron said in the story.

Gawron, who died at age 93, estimated that he did more than 500 drawings and paintings while at Auschwitz. He kept four. Several are in the Auschwitz museum, and two others are in the book "The Art of the Holocaust."

Charles Genella enters the picture in 1980 while driving by a house on McCallie Avenue that was being renovated. He stopped and offered to buy a pile of marble laying outside. Returning for a second load, he noticed the 34-by-43-inch portrait in the trash heap. He bought it for $95, according to his son.

An active knife collector, Genella traveled the country attending gun and knife shows. A vendor who sold German military collectibles and memorabilia once had mentioned that he restored paintings.

When they crossed paths in Cincinnati, Genella asked if the vendor if he could restore the badly damaged portrait of Hitler.

Donnie Genella, who heard the story many times over the years, said that when Genella received the finished restoration and asked Gawron the cost, he said, "I don't want any money."

"My dad, well, he spoke his mind, and he said, 'I'm going to pay you something,' " Donnie said.

"I painted that when I was in Auschwitz," Gawron told his father, "and I don't want any money, and I don't want to ever see that thing again."

For years, Donnie Genella has wondered why the painting had two names in the lower right corner, and neither was Gawron's. The first is P. Ritter, and underneath it is the name Exner.

He may have gotten his answer Thursday, thanks to Skip Skipper of Affordable Estate Sales. According to research Skipper dug up, the original portrait was done by Willy Exner. During the war, several artists were enlisted to paint copies of it to be hung in various locations and buildings.

Donnie Genella said he remembers being told that Gawron did at least one other and maybe a third copy of the portrait.

"This is a copy of a copy of a copy," Skipper said. "The provenance on this piece to me is the value behind it."

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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