David J.B. Smith shines a light on the dark practice of mis-selling wartime photographs
In December 2017 David was published in the brilliant Armourer magazine. Here's the full article, in its unabridged version:
Collecting original photographs from both World Wars can be interesting and financially rewarding. Starting a collection can be relatively inexpensive. Many great wartime photographs can be found at flea markets, in auction rooms and in online marketplaces. However, even the most experienced and established militaria dealers and collectors can get caught out when purchasing wartime photographs – many of which are not quite as they seem.
The unscrupulous practice of reproducing and deliberately mis-selling copies of original images, particularly photographs taken during WWII, is commonplace. Identifying these rogue modern-day reproductions can be a veritable minefield for the uninitiated. Experience shows that a large majority of wartime photographs showing major events, famous locations or notable figures will nearly always be modern reproductions of original photographs. A good example of this are photographs showing the scuttled German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee.
During the early days of WWII, Graf Spee was successfully hunting Allied shipping on the high seas, with relative impunity. From the end of September to mid-December 1939, Graf Spee stopped and sank 50,089 tonnes of merchant shipping. To combat the threat posed by the marauding pocket battleship, the British Admiralty detached three warships from their South American Cruiser Squadron – HMS Exeter, HMNZS Achilles and HMS Ajax.
On the morning of 13 December 1939, lookouts on-board Ajax spotted distant funnel smoke. It was likely Graf Spee had seen the main mast of Exeter first as rounds simultaneously rained down on the Royal Navy warships. One of the first major naval gun battles of WWII ensued. This mere 40-minute gun engagement would become known as the Battle of River Plate. Faced with insurmountable odds after sustaining considerable damage, along with loss of life, Graf Spee made good her escape. The German pocket battleship sought refuge at the Port of Montevideo in Uruguay, with the intention of getting seaworthy.
The Uruguayan government had signed and adhered to The Hague Convention, which laid out the rights and duties of neutral countries in wartime. The heavily battered Graf Spee was told to sail from Montevideo after only 72 hours’ respite. Under pressure from the German Admiralty to breakout or scuttle, Graf Spee’s captain, Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff, could see no means of escape. Reluctantly, Graf Spee sailed from Montevideo on 17 December 1939.
Scuttling charges were rigged and all confidential books destroyed. Armament and machinery were smashed or rendered useless. Graf Spee was deliberately run aground 6NM south-west of Montevideo. An eleven-man skeleton crew – including Langsdorff – remained on-board to set the charges. The rest of her ship’s company had escaped to Buenos Aires in sympathetic Argentina prior to sailing.
That evening, only a matter of minutes after the skeleton crew had departed, bright columns of flame erupted from Graf Spee, caused by a series of timed explosions. Her burning hull gently settled by the stern in the mud of the Rio de la Plata. Three days later, Captain Langsdorff reportedly committed suicide in his room at the Argentine naval arsenal. The smouldering wreck of the Graf Spee lay in only 25m of water and remained visible above the surface until 1950.
The most common photographs of Graf Spee were taken in February 1940 by Ensign Richard D. Sampson of USS Helena. These images are readily available today and can be downloaded free in high resolution. A collection of images was also reproduced from original photographs taken by Graf Spee crewmen. Several of these images show the funeral service at Cementerio del Norte in Montevideo of the 36 German crewmen who died as a result of the Battle of River Plate.
A crude forgery of Maubach’s developer’s mark
Enter German photographer and spy, William Guillermo Maubach. Herr Maubach ran a well-known photography studio in Buenos Aires. From this studio he also developed and supplied photographs to the Deutsche La Plata Zeitung, the most widely read German-language newspaper in Argentina. In early 1940, Maubach’s studio was given and developed many photographs showing the demise of Graf Spee. It is clear from the images in the photographs that they were taken by crew members of the German battleship as they cleared the doomed vessel, prior to its destruction.
The Deutsche La Plata Zeitung newspaper was rumoured to have been in receipt of subsidies filtered through the German legation in Buenos Aires. In the mid-1940s, the newspaper was forced to close, owing to what people considered its National Socialist sympathies. In 1947, the United States Embassy issued a deportation decree requesting that Maubach be deported from Argentina, as they believed he had been working covertly as a German agent.
A list of German agents including No19 – Guillermo Maubach
Maubach’s name appeared on a list of 133 people spread among several different nationalities, although most were German. Many of the countries represented on the list were known to be sympathetic to the Nazi ideology. Guillermo Maubach avoided arrest and was never found. The majority of Maubach’s photographs which exist today are copies. It is considered by many Graf Spee researchers to be impossible to locate the original negatives.
Spotting fraudulently reproduced photographs
The photographs shown here are modern reproductions of Maubach’s originals – purchased online and fraudulently described as authentic original photographs of Graf Spee. These photographs, sent from Buenos Aires, smelled strongly of coffee. A manganese oxide solution, or even tea and coffee, can be applied to photographic paper to make modern prints look aged. Leaving the images in direct sunlight will also produce the desired effect, but will take longer.
Original period photographs will not have the same glossiness as when first developed. The photographs would have dulled with age. Beware of any wartime photograph which still appears over-glossy. Another tell-tale sign is that a modern reproduction will not be consistently sharp all over. The edges of the image will be blurred when magnified.
Photographic paper type can be a major giveaway as to whether a wartime photograph is original or not. This should be your first port of call when checking the validity of a wartime photograph. Since the late 1940s and early 1950s, synthetic optical brighteners have been used in the production of photographic paper – with the exception of photographic paper manufactured in the Soviet Union, where brighteners have been in use only since the end of the 1950s.
A longwave UV black light is an ideal tool to authenticate the age of photographic paper. A photograph from the post-1950 era will produce a bright, light blue fluorescent glow when a UV black light is shone through the image. The light blue glow is caused by invisible dyes that fluoresce when exposed to UV light. The majority of period photographic paper will produce a dull white or yellow tinted light. When using a black light, it is important that the user try it on a variety of photographs to get used to the results. It is advisable to shine the light on all surfaces of the photograph, including the edges. The image face of the photograph may contain gelatine which could prevent the photograph from fluorescing when shone from front to back. UV black lights or torches are widely available and invaluable when attempting to determine the authenticity of a wartime photograph.
In an attempt to overcome the UV test, producers of reproduction photographs often use pre-1950s photographic paper. This makes the detection of modern copies even harder to distinguish. Most – but not all – period photographic paper has a series of logos on its reverse side. Some well-known examples are Selo, Agfa-Lupex and Leonar, one of the most commonly used types of German photographic paper. This list is not exhaustive and even photographic paper brand logos can be reproduced. You may think it is virtually impossible to identify a modern reproduced photograph but a combination of technical knowledge and common sense can usually reveal the truth.
The manufacturer of the Graf Spee photographs attempted to enhance the notion that the photographs are genuine by crudely hand-stamping the reverse sides with Guillermo Maubach’s developer’s mark. The seller went one step further to complete the ruse and trimmed the sides of several of the photographs with period serrated scissors. Clearly a lot of research had gone into making these modern photographs look authentic. A poor quality, dirty inkjet printer was the downfall of this forger – vertical print lines can be seen across several of the photographs.
Deployment photograph albums
There is another altogether more innocent type of mass-reproduced wartime photograph worthy of mention. Buyers and sellers can be lulled into thinking their photographs are original and one of a kind by falling foul of a trend which was prevalent during both World Wars. It was very common, particularly for Allied servicemen, to purchase single or small collections of photographs when serving in theatre. These images nearly always depicted a pivotal event which took place during the war. These period, but mass-reproduced photographs, were sold to liberating forces at foreign markets and bazaars.
After being deployed in a war zone, many servicemen brought the images home to show their families their wartime experiences. It must be stressed that the majority of wartime photographs, both reproduction and mass-produced, will almost always show original content – but were they printed during the right period and are they the only ones in existence? It is these photographs that are commonly reproduced by fruadulant sellers.
A good example of a modern reproduction WWII photograph album was recently acquired from auction. The rogue album purportedly contained 40 original photographs of various warships, submarines and wartime locations. A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know. A modicum of commonsense and knowledge of the subject matter is always preferable when appraising the contents of a wartime photograph album.
The fictional but supposedly original owner of the album appeared to have served at nearly every major event of WWII. The image content ranged from the 1940 capture of the Italian submarine Uebi Scebeli to the German invasion of Crete in May 1941 and on to the sinking of HMS Ark Royal in November of the same year. However, the most suspicious photograph in the album has to be the close-up image of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in the desert, surrounded Axis servicemen and enjoying a drink.
There is much interest in reproduced wartime photographs, especially those produced just after the end of WWII. It must be stressed that not all wartime photographs are modern reproductions. Equally, not all dealers or online sellers are unscrupulous. A reputable seller will always state if the photograph for sale is a reproduction, or will use a similar term.
There is a large market for reproduction and original wartime photographs. Many originals can realise prices in the hundreds of pounds online or at auction, especially if accompanied by their negatives. The ultimate value will always be dependent on the condition and subject matter.
Reproduced wartime photographs can commonly be brought for between £3 and £8 each. Again, this will be dependent on the subject, with photographs showing major events, famous locations or notable figures always realising a higher price. A deployment album of around 40 original, period but mass-produced photographs could fetch £60–£80.
If you were wondering… the incredibly well-faked collection of Graf Spee images cheated the buyer out of £20 at an online auction, but provided a valuable lesson.
If something is too good to be true – it probably is.
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