Thursday, November 8, 2012

THE CONRATH RITTERKREUZ DOCUMENTS SCANDAL

This is the story of how even the top experts and collectors were gulled by a set of forged formal Ritterkreuz documents purporting to have come from the family of Paul Conrath, Commander of the Luftwaffe's elite Hermann Göring Division. And how those who tried to expose the truth were gagged by the two main militaria forums at the time: Wehrmacht Awards Dot Com and German Daggers Dot Com, run respectively by Sebastián Bianchi and Craig Gottlieb. You will not find this story on either of these websites nor on any others today, although collectors occasionally ask about it. For them, therefore, here is a story of ambitious deception from the archives.


Generalmajor und Eichenlaubtrager Paul Conrath was the Commander of the Hermann Göring Division. One of the more remarkable scandals to hit the military world broke early in 2003, when I reported that the noted collector George Petersen, who concentrated to a great extent on Herman Göring Division-related documents, had been alerted at the 2002 MAX Show that two major pieces in his HG collection, the formal RK and OL documents to divisional commander Paul Conrath, were high quality fakes. Generalmajor Conrath died in 1979 and some time later, so the cover story fed to Mr Petersen went, the Conrath family had decided to separate themselves from these documents, amongst other things. 

George Petersen confirmed that he was approached at a military show in Dortmund in the early 1990s by the Hamburg dealer Detlev Niemann, who offered him the documents set "straight from the family". Mr Niemann was already gaining a reputation amongst American collectors as a dealer who could source extraordinary items for their collections of Third Reich memorabilia and, his reputation being clean, Mr Petersen clearly saw no reason for suspicion. Had he known, however, that the documents were actually straight from fellow Hamburg dealer Kai Winkler, he might have exercised more caution.  


Sebastián Bianchi
The fake documents were good enough to fool an experienced document collector of the calibre of George Petersen and were said by many to have been produced by the father of Kai Winkler. That the Oakleaves document and its cassette found their way into one of the two or three leading reference works on the Iron Cross 1939 is no reflection on the author, Gordon Williamson, who in any case would just have received publication quality scans. The Ritterkreuz folder, which was also shown in Mr Williamson's book, and the Eichenlaub cassette were both original. 

The following article was written in February 2004 and initially published in the form of posts on the Wehrmacht-Awards Dot Com and the German-Daggers Dot Com websites, where I had been a moderator with the late Bill Stump. It was quickly deleted from both websites. This version was subsequently published on the 'rebel' Militaria Collecting Forum website. Threads containing links to the MCF version were rigorously deleted by the managements of the WAF and GDC forums, whose webmasters Sebastián Bianchi and Craig Gottlieb were at the time trying to establish a joint-monopoly on militaria-related information on the internet and had no wish to upset the dealers backing their websites. 


THE CONRATH DOCUMENTS SCAM

One of the bigger scandals to hit the militaria market was hushed up for a while but details are beginning to emerge as the victim speaks out. Legendary American collector and dealer George Petersen has a particular interest in the Hermann Göring Division and related units. 



Top German dealer Detlev Niemann reportedly approached Mr Petersen privately to see if he would be interested in the formal award documents for the Knight's Cross and the Oakleaves presented to the Hermann Göring divisional commander, Generalmajor Paul Conrath in 1941 and 1943. Mr Petersen purchased the Conrath documents from Mr Niemann for a substantial sum, said to be in the region of $80,000.00.



The document was subsequently featured in militaria author Gordon Williamson’s book The Iron Cross of 1939, published in 2002, which is considered to be the definitive reference work to date on the Iron Cross of WW2. At the MAX Show in October 2002, Mr Petersen was in the process of selling the Conrath Oakleaves document to another leading document collector.  German dealer Helmut Weitze, intervened, recounting a disturbing story to the prospective buyer. 

Mr Weitze said that the Conrath Oakleaves document was a fake and alleged that Mr Petersen had been the victim of a carefully planned ‘sting’ conceived and executed by Mr Niemann and Kai Winkler, another top German dealer. Mr Petersen was understandably sceptical because the three German dealers in question are bitter rivals. Furthermore, the Conrath document was perfect in every respect. Or so Mr Petersen thought. But according to his informant, the faker had incorporated a secret mark into his work in the form of a diamond-shaped full stop, known to a handful of accomplices but invisible to the untutored eye.

Mr Petersen duly examined the Conrath document and discovered the faker’s mark. The document was indeed a fake but such a good fake that it had convinced one of the world’s authorities on WW2 German documents to part with a high five-figure sum. According to Mr Petersen, he contacted Detlev Niemann and during the conversation that ensued, gave him an ultimatum; Mr Niemann was to reimburse Mr Petersen by the end of February or face exposure by Mr Petersen as a crook.

Mr Niemann was reportedly unable to refund Mr Petersen’s money in full because his accomplice refused to return his share of the proceeds of the scam, telling Mr Niemann that there was no proof that he was involved. According to sources close to Mr Petersen, he and Mr Niemann came to a financial arrangement and Mr Niemann was thus spared public exposure by Mr Petersen as a crook who had deliberately entered into an ambitious criminal enterprise with a business rival to swindle one of the world’s top collectors and foremost authorities on documents. 

However, the story has been in circulation since the beginning of 2003. In January 2003, I put the story to Sebastian Bianchi, webmaster of the Wehrmacht-Awards Dot Com website, which promotes Detlev Niemann to its large membership as a trustworthy and reliable dealer. As Mr Bianchi wrote on on April 29th 2002: "Detlev Niemann has been a friend of this site and this forum since its inception. He not only sponsors the site in an official capacity but also provides support in ways that are above and beyond this commitment. You know from your purchase success rate that he hardly needs the advertisement, yet he supports the site and the hobby in ways that other dealers and auction houses would never dream of. If I sound like a cheerleading band it is because I personally hold deep respect for the man."

Mr Niemann is widely believed to be a joint-owner of the Wehrmacht Awards concern, described dubiously as a non-profit organisation. Mr Bianchi and his forum moderators are well known for a tendency to discourage and to delete negative comments related to Detlev Niemann from the discussion forums hosted by Wehrmacht Awards Dot Com.

Mr Bianchi had called me to discuss some negative comments I had made about his “friend” and “sponsor” Mr Niemann in relation to several fakes that Mr Niemann had sold, including Army Parachutists Badges and a Legion Condor Tank Badge. I had previously been banned from Mr Bianchi’s website after a member there had linked to a Luftwaffe badge, purchased from Mr Niemann, displayed in the collectors’ gallery section of a website I co-own. The badge was discussed on Mr Bianchi’s forums and declared a fake. It was indeed a fake but when I produced the Certificate of Authenticity accompanying the badge when it was sold to a French collector, and published it on Mr Bianchi’s website, in the thread where my website was being criticised for showing fakes, the thread was closed, my post was deleted and my account was suspended. This is just one example from a catalogue of similar incidents involving several people who have all been banned by Mr Bianchi for “attacking” Mr Niemann.

Upon hearing the story of the Conrath document from me on the telephone, Mr Bianchi sounded very uncomfortable indeed. His aggressive tone evaporated. He was silent for a moment and then asked if there was “any proof”. I suggested that he call George Petersen. He was again silent for a moment before saying “Well, let’s wait and see what happens.”, referring to the ultimatum given to Mr Niemann by Mr Petersen. Mr Bianchi then changed the subject. Since then, Mr Bianchi has become protective of Mr Niemann to the point of hysteria as this quote when he closed down a thread shows: "This thread has run its course, Detlev’s integrity needs no further endorsement and I will not open this up for posts by those who do not have the sense to recognize that sometimes issues needs to be discussed via private e-mail."

In another example from the record, Mr Niemann sends out a clear signal to Mr Bianchi that he is in difficulties, on this occasion over a flawed die Steinhauer & Lück Knight’s Cross for sale on his website. A number of forum participants had asked awkward questions about this cross. Mr Niemann had responded with customary aggression but found himself ‘on the ropes’. So Mr Bianchi duly obliged by stepping in to warn everyone off. His reference to the “ring” is interesting. He was confusing two issues. I had earlier made a reference publicly to the Conrath document episode and Mr Bianchi was furious as he had threatened me with immediate expulsion if I ever raised the matter publicly, not just on his forum but anywhere. I had not used the term “ring” – as in a ring of conmen or car thieves – so his slip is a telling one.

Sebastian Bianchi
Administrator


Joined: Jan 2000
Location: Matawan, NJ, USA


Quote:
------------------------------------------------------------------------
Originally Posted by Detlev Niemann
But as this fruitless and personal debat should not continue I will ask the Moderators either to order us to stay logic and cool, or simple to delete the whole circus.

d.
------------------------------------------------------------------------

Indeed this thread should be about the cross in question, and only about the cross in question. The serious accusations put forth regarding this "ring" should be either backed up with names, dates, and places or deleted. I will be monitoring this thread carefully and will not hesitate to act, do not force my hand.


__________________
Sebastián J. Bianchi

Wehrmacht-Awards.com
Wehrmacht-Association.com
Report Post | IP: Logged

The reason, according to several inside sources, is that Niemann is not just a "sponsor" of the Wehrmacht Awards operation. He is a sleeping partner in an operation whose management - and certain members – devote a remarkable amount of energy to promoting Mr Niemann and his dealership. The Conrath Document Affair exposes certain truths that many militaria collectors are reluctant to face. If collectors as experienced as George Petersen can be taken for a ride in this way, what else is possible? As one collector said:

"The reason many of them are worried is that their knowledge of what they collect is actually insufficient in itself and instead of investing the time and effort in educating themselves, they place sheeplike faith in the dealer annointed as their guru. This is why they tend to shoot the messenger."

Meanwhile, Mr Bianchi’s operation continues to grow in size, forming alliances with other websites like Militariaweb, derided by many top European collectors as nothing more than an outlet for dealers unloading questionable items which they either cannot risk selling under their own names or which have already been returned by dissatisfied customers and consequently are sold off through such auction websites by dealers’ frontmen or the dealers themselves, operating behind the anonymity afforded by the internet. As for Detlev Niemann, some idea of the man behind the myth can be gleaned from his own statements.

Who ever insults,attacks or bad mouthes me OR MY STAFF will be added to our privat “Black list” we have in our office.I will never ever sell or help this person again.Either being a dealer or a collector,this strain is dead.And this list is already very long.Few might know that I’m not on speaking terms with most of my collegues.

It would be surprising indeed if Mr Niemann were on speaking terms with his colleagues in Germany. One of them grassed him and his accomplice up over the Conrath document scam and the other, his partner in this criminal enterprise, left him holding the baby when the furious buyer came a-knocking. Presumably George Petersen is now on Detlev Niemann’s blacklist.

Copyright © 2004 Paddy Keating



George Petersen may have given Detlev Niemann "the benefit of the doubt" concerning any intention on the latter's part to swindle Mr Petersen but sources close to Mr Petersen said that the Virginia dealer still held Mr Niemann responsible as far as remuneration and compensation were concerned and referring to "working with" Mr Niemann to settle the whole thing in order to avoid the exposure of "much dirty laundry", as the following page from his long fax on the subject shows.




Quite what Mr Petersen meant by "much dirty laundry" can only be guessed at but given some of the revelations in this blog and others, the guesswork does not present much of a problem. Mr Petersen was said not just to have demanded the refund of the original purchase price, which the above fax indicates was high, but a sum equivalent to the value of the documents in 2002, had they been genuine. The fact that Detlev Niemann's business went into a long, painful decline in terms of quality and value of stock and subsequently closed down seems to confirm the sources' information. 


Today, no mention of the extraordinary Conrath documents story can be found on the Wehrmacht-Awards website or on any of the other major militaria forums on the Internet. However, a Conrath RK document was  reportedly auctioned by Craig Gottlieb early in 2012 as a copy, reportedly fetching over $3,000. 

2 comments:

  1. you can forget the story about winklers father having a hand in it , his father and mother died many years ago in a tragic car crash , i believe they were dealers in things like old dolls and teddy bears ,they say the dolls were all over the highway after the crash , they were very wealthy people leaving their money to kai

    ReplyDelete
  2. Man I love this blog.

    ReplyDelete

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