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The Doctor Who Got Hitler Hooked on Drugs—And the Plot to Take Him Down

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ww2 Gallery, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, author Norman Ohler reveals that the Nazis doped their soldiers with a stimulant they called Pervitin—a.k.a. methamphetamine. The drug helped the Germans win key battles in the beginning of World War II.

But it wasn’t just low-level soldiers who were using during the Second World War. Drug use went all the way up the Nazi leadership to Hitler himself. The dictator’s personal physician, Theodor Morell, regularly injected “Patient A” with hormone preparations and steroids he had created using animal glands and other dubious ingredients—and as Hitler’s health worsened, Morell secretly began treating him with eukodal, otherwise known as oxycodone, in July 1943. Hitler received an injection every other day—which is, Ohler notes, “The typical rhythm of an addict and contradicts the idea of a purely medical application.” The Führer was hooked.

In July 1944, German senior military officials tried to kill Hitler with a bomb in the unsuccessful Operation Valkyrie. The explosion punctured both of Hitler’s eardrums. Ear, nose, and throat doctor Erwin Giesing was called to Hitler’s headquarters in Poland and began treating Hitler without consulting Morell, administering cocaine in the dictator's nasal passages with a cotton swab. Hitler quickly became addicted to cocaine, too.

Morell and Giesing hated and distrusted each other from the start. In fact, Giesing suspected Morell was poisoning Hitler—and he wasn't alone. In autumn 1944, the situation finally came to a head, as recounted in this excerpt from Blitzed.

THE DOCTORS’ WAR

You have all agreed that you want to turn me into a sick man.
— Adolf Hitler

The power of the personal physician was approaching a high point during that autumn of 1944. Since the attempt on his life Patient A needed him more than ever, and with each new injection Morell gained further influence. The dictator was closer to him than he was to anyone else; there was no one he liked to talk to as much, no one he trusted more. At major meetings with the generals an armed SS man stood behind every chair to prevent any further attacks. Anyone who wanted to see Hitler had to hand over his briefcase. This regulation did not apply to Morell’s doctor’s bag.

Many people envied the self-styled “sole personal physician” his privileged position. Suspicion about him was growing. Morell still stubbornly refused to talk to anyone else about his methods of treatment. Right until the end he maintained the discretion with which he had initially approached the post. But in the stuffy atmosphere of the haunted realm of the bunker system, where the poisonous plants of paranoia sent their creepers over the thick concrete walls, this was not without its dangers. Morell even left the assistant doctors Karl Brandt and Hanskarl von Hasselbach, with whom he could have discussed the treatment of Hitler, consistently in the dark. He had mutated from outsider to diva. He told no one anything, wrapping himself in an aura of mystery and uniqueness. Even the Führer’s all-powerful secretary, Martin Bormann, who made it clear that he would have preferred a different kind of treatment for Hitler, one based more on biology, was banging his head against a wall when it came to the fat doctor.

As the war was being lost, guilty parties were sought. The forces hostile to Morell were assembling. For a long time Heinrich Himmler had been collecting information about the physician, to accuse him of having a morphine addiction and thus of being vulnerable to blackmail. Again and again the suspicion was voiced on the quiet: might he not be a foreign spy who was secretly poisoning the Führer? As early as 1943 the foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had invited Morell to lunch at his castle, Fuschl, near Salzburg, and launched an attack: while the conversation with von Ribbentrop’s wife initially revolved around trivial questions such as temporary marriages, state bonuses for children born out of wedlock, lining up for food and the concomitant waste of time, after the meal the minister stonily invited him “upstairs, to discuss something.”

Von Ribbentrop, arrogant, difficult, and blasé as always, tapped the ash off his Egyptian cigarette with long, aristocratic fingers, looked grimly around the room, then fired off a cannonade of questions at the miracle doctor: Was it good for the Führer to get so many injections? Was he given anything apart from glucose? Was it, generally speaking, not far too much? The doctor gave curt replies: he only injected “what was necessary.” But von Ribbentrop insisted that the Führer required “a complete transformation of his whole body, so that he became more resilient.” That was water off a duck’s back for Morell, and he left the castle rather unimpressed. “Laymen are often so blithe and simple in their medical judgments,” he wrote, concluding his record of the conversation.

But this was not the last assault Morell would bear. The first structured attack came from Bormann, who tried to guide Hitler’s treatment onto regular, or at least manageable, lines. A letter reached the doctor: “Secret Reich business!” In eight points “measures for the Führer’s security in terms of his medical treatment” were laid out, a sample examination of the medicines in the SS laboratories was scheduled, and, most importantly, Morell was ordered henceforth always “to inform the medical supply officer which and how many medications he plans to use monthly for the named purpose.”

In fact this remained a rather helpless approach from Bormann, who was not usually helpless. On the one hand his intervention turned Hitler’s medication into an official procedure, but on the other he wanted as little correspondence as possible on the subject, since it was important to maintain the healthful aura of the leader of the master race. Heil Hitler literally means “Health to Hitler,” after all. For that reason the drugs, as detailed in Bormann’s letter, were to be paid for in cash to leave no paper trail. Bormann added that the “monthly packets” should be stored ready for delivery at any time in an armored cupboard, and made “as identifiable as possible down to the ampoule by consecutive numbering (for example, for the first consignment: 1/44), while at the same time the external wrapping of the package should bear an inscription to be precisely established with the personal signature of the medical supply officer.”

Morell’s reaction to this bureaucratic attempt to make his activities transparent was as simple as it was startling. He ignored the instructions of the mighty security apparatus and simply didn’t comply, instead continuing as before. In the eye of the hurricane he felt invulnerable, banking on the assumption that Patient A would always protect him.

In late September 1944, in the pale light of the bunker, the ear doctor, Giesing, noted an unusual coloration in Hitler’s face and suspected jaundice. The same day, on the dinner table there was a plate holding “apple compote with glucose and green grapes” and a box of “Dr. Koester’s anti-gas pills,” a rather obscure product. Giesing was perplexed when he discovered that its pharmacological components included atropine, derived from belladonna or other nightshade plants, and strychnine, a highly toxic alkaloid of nux vomica, which paralyzes the neurons of the spinal column and is also used as rat poison. Giesing indeed smelled a rat. The side-effects of these anti-gas pills at too high a dose seemed to correspond to Hitler’s symptoms. Atropine initially has a stimulating effect on the central nervous system, then a paralyzing one, and a state of cheerfulness arises, with a lively flow of ideas, loquacity, and visual and auditory hallucinations, as well as delirium, which can mutate into violence and raving. Strychnine in turn is held responsible for increased light-sensitivity and even fear of light, as well as for states of flaccidity. For Giesing the case seemed clear: “Hitler constantly demonstrated a state of euphoria that could not be explained by anything, and I am certain his heightened mood when making decisions after major political or military defeats can be largely explained in this way.”

In the anti-gas pills Giesing thought he had discovered the causes of both Hitler’s megalomania and his physical decline. He decided to treat himself as a guinea pig: for a few days Giesing took the little round pills himself, promptly identified that he had the same symptoms, and decided to go on the offensive. His intention was to disempower Morell by accusing him of deliberately poisoning the Führer, so that Giesing could assume the position of personal physician himself. While the Allied troops were penetrating the borders of the Reich from all sides, the pharmacological lunacy in the claustrophobic Wolf’s Lair was becoming a doctors’ war.

As his ally in his plot, Giesing chose Hitler’s surgeon, who had been an adversary of Morell’s for a long time. Karl Brandt was in Berlin at the time, but when Giesing called he took the next plane to East Prussia without hesitation and immediately summoned the accused man. While the personal physician must have worried that he was being collared for Eukodal, he was practically relieved when his opponents tried to snare him with the anti-gas pills, which were available without prescription. Morell was also able to demonstrate that he had not even prescribed them, but that Hitler had organized the acquisition of the pills through his valet, Heinz Linge. Brandt, who had little knowledge of biochemistry and focused his attention on the side-effects of strychnine, was not satisfied with this defense. He threatened Morell: “Do you think anyone would believe you if you claimed that you didn’t issue this prescription? Do you think Himmler might treat you differently from anyone else? So many people are being executed at present that the matter would be dealt with quite coldly.” Just a week later Brandt added: “I have proof that this is a simple case of strychnine poisoning. I can tell you quite openly that over the last five days I have only stayed here because of the Führer’s illness.”

But what sort of illness was that exactly? Was it really icterus—jaundice? Or might it be a typical kind of junkie hepatitis because Morell wasn’t using properly sterile needles? Hitler, whose syringes were only ever disinfected with alcohol, wasn’t looking well. His liver, under heavy attack from those many toxic substances over the past few months, was releasing the bile pigment bilirubin: a warning signal that turns skin and eyes yellow. Morell was being accused of poisoning his patient. There was an air of threat when Brandt addressed Hitler. Meanwhile, on the night of October 5, 1944, Morell suffered a brain edema from the agitation. Hitler was unsettled beyond measure by the accusations: Treachery? Poison? Might he have been mistaken for all those years? Was he being double-crossed by his personally chosen doctor, Morell, the truest of the true, the best of all his friends? Wouldn’t dropping his personal physician, who had just given him a beneficial injection of Eukodal, amount to a kind of self-abandonment? Wouldn’t it leave him high and dry, vulnerable? This was an attack that might prove fatal, as his power was based on charisma. After all, it was the drugs that helped him artificially maintain his previously natural aura, on which everything depended.

 
Since the start of the Führer’s rapid physical decline these internecine struggles between the doctors turned into a proxy war for succession at the top of the Nazi state. The situation was becoming worse: Himmler told Brandt he could easily imagine that Morell had tried to kill Hitler. The Reichsführer-SS called the physician to his office and coldly informed him that he had himself sent so many people to the gallows that he no longer cared about one more. At the same time, in Berlin, the head of the Gestapo, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, summoned Morell’s locum, Dr. Weber, from the Kurfürstendamm to a hearing at the Reich Security Main Office on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. Weber tried to exonerate his boss, and voiced his opinion that a plot was utterly out of the question. He claimed Morell was far too fearful for such a thing.

Finally the chemical analysis of the disputed medication was made available. The result: its atropine and strychnine content was far too small to poison anyone, even in the massive quantities that Hitler had been given. It was a comprehensive victory for Morell. “I would like the matter involving the anti-gas pills to be forgotten once and for all,” Hitler stated, ending the affair. “You can say what you like against Morell—he is and remains my only personal physician, and I trust him completely.” Giesing received a reprimand, and Hitler dismissed him with the words that all Germans were freely able to choose their doctors, including himself, the Führer. Furthermore, it was well known that it was the patient’s faith in his doctor’s methods that contributed to his cure. Hitler would stay with the doctor he was familiar with, and brushed aside all references to Morell’s lax treatment of the syringe: “I know that Morell’s new method is not yet internationally recognized, and that Morell is still in the research stage with certain matters, without having reached a firm conclusion about them. But that has been the case with all medical innovations. I have no worries that Morell will not make his own way, and I will immediately give him financial support for his work if he needs it.”

Himmler, a dedicated sycophant, immediately changed tack: “Yes, gentlemen,” he explained to Hasselbach and Giesing, “You are not diplomats. You know that the Führer has implicit trust in Morell, and that should not be shaken.” When Hasselbach protested that any medical or even civil court could at least accuse Morell of negligent bodily harm, Himmler turned abrasive: “Professor, you are forgetting that as interior minister I am also head of the supreme health authority. And I don’t want Morell to be brought to trial.” The head of the SS dismissed Giesing’s objection that Hitler was the only head of state in the world who took between 120 and 150 tablets and received between 8 and 10 injections every week.

The tide had turned once and for all against Giesing, who was given a check from Bormann for ten thousand reichsmarks in compensation for his work. Both reichsmarks in compensation for his work. Both Hasselbach and the influential Brandt were out of luck as well, also damaging the latter’s confidant Speer, who had his eye on Hitler’s succession. The three doctors had to leave headquarters. Morell was the only one who stayed behind. On October 8, 1944, he rejoiced in the happy news: “The Führer told me that Brandt had only to meet his obligations in Berlin.” Patient A stood firmly by his supplier. Just as every addict adores his dealer, Hitler was unable to leave the generous doctor who provided him with everything he needed.

The dictator told his physician: “These idiots didn’t even think about what they were doing to me! I would suddenly have been standing there without a doctor, and these people should have known that during the eight years you have been with me you have saved my life several times. And how I was before! All doctors who were dragged in failed. I’m not an ungrateful person, my dear doctor. If we are both lucky enough to make it through the war, then you’ll see how well I will reward you!”

Morell’s confident reply can also be read as an attempt to justify himself to posterity, because the physician put it baldly on record: “My Führer, if a normal doctor had treated you during that time, then you would have been taken away from your work for so long that the Reich would have perished.” According to Morell’s own account, Hitler peered at him with a long, grateful gaze and shook his hand: “My dear doctor, I am glad and happy that I have you.”

The war between the doctors was thus shelved. Patient A had put a stop to a premature dismissal. The price he paid was the continued destruction of his health by a personal physician who had been confirmed in his post. To calm his nerves the head of state received “Eukodal, Eupaverin. Glucose i.v. plus Homoseran i.m.”

Excerpt from BLITZED: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler, translated by Shaun Whiteside. © 2017 by Norman Ohler. English translation © 2017 by Shaun Whiteside. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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Brigido Lara, the Artist Whose Pre-Columbian Fakes Fooled Museums Around the World
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In July 1974, Mexican authorities sent a man named Brigido Lara to jail. His crime wasn't a violent one, but it was serious nonetheless: Archaeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), a Mexican federal government bureau devoted to preserving the nation's heritage, claimed that Lara had been found with ancient ceramic artifacts looted from archeological sites in the state of Veracruz.

Lara was convicted of stealing and smuggling antiquities, but he insisted he wasn't a thief—and he could prove it. All he needed were tools and some clay brought to his jail cell. 

FORGING A CAREER

Lara grew up in Veracruz, in the village of Tlalixcoyán. While his parents were peasant farmers, Lara showed artistic talent—specifically, a knack for creating figurines from clay. Veracruz is home to many archaeological sites that date back to hundreds and thousands of years before the arrival of before Christopher Columbus, and the young Lara would often find ancient terra-cotta figurines in the fields and near rivers. He claims that by the time he was 9 years old, he was making versions of these artifacts using clay harvested from a local stream.

As Lara grew older, his skill set expanded. He reportedly taught himself how to prep and oven-fire local clay, and began making objects that mimicked those of several ancient Mesoamerican cultures—imitation Olmec pots, Maya polychrome vessels, and figurines in the Aztec, Mayan, and Totonac styles. He began specializing in replicating works by the Totonacs, a culture that flourished in central Veracruz until the Spanish Conquest introduced diseases that ravaged the communities. These figurines ranged in size from large to tiny, and often depicted mythological gods wearing masks and headdresses.

It's not entirely clear whether Lara began making these figurines for fun or profit. But according to the man himself, traveling dry-goods merchants had noticed his talents before he had even reached his teens. They accepted his "interpretations," as he called his early work, in lieu of cash—then sold them on the black market. Looters also came to Lara, asking him to fix and restore stolen works. Eventually, the artist wound up working in a Mexico City atelier that produced forgeries.

No detail was too tiny for Lara. He visited archaeological sites to study just-dug-up artifacts, and harvested clay from the surrounding region to sculpt exact likenesses. He later told Connoisseur magazine that for true authenticity, he even crafted his own primitive tools and stockpiled 32 grades of cinnabar—a reddish form of mercury used by the Olmec, an ancient Mesoamerican civilization that existed between 1200 BCE and 400 BCE—for precise pigmentation. He finished his works with a ancient-looking patina made from cement, lime, hot sugar water, urine, and other ingredients, and coated the final products with a seal made from dirt and glue.

But even though Lara was a stickler for the details, he also took artistic liberties with some of his "interpretations," adding elements that wouldn't have appeared on the original artifacts. Sometimes he would include a fanciful new detail from his imagination: a winged headdress, or one that writhed with serpents; a duck-billed mask, or a dramatic, lifelike pose.

Lara didn't consider himself a forger. "My style was born with me," he told The New York Times in 1987. "I didn't learn from anyone. I studied the pre-Columbian pieces in my town that came from the burial mounds, and I used the ancient techniques. I made these pieces and I am very proud."

But by young adulthood, he'd also become a businessman, selling his unsigned pre-Columbian replicas to middlemen who re-sold them to illegal art collectors both domestically and abroad. "I was aware that many buyers then sold them as authentic pre-Hispanic works," Lara admitted to Art & Antiques magazine years later.

COMING CLEAN

Lara's forgery career may have continued undetected had he and four of his buyers not been apprehended in 1974 and charged with trafficking in pre-Columbian works. The police didn't consider Lara an artist or a forger—his works looked so real, the authorities thought they'd been dug right out of the ground.

Lara was sentenced to 10 years in jail. To regain his freedom, he devised a plan: He asked law enforcement officials to grant his lawyer permission to bring him clay and art tools. Right there in his cell, Lara created replicas of the antiques he'd reportedly stolen. Experts from the INAH examined the earthen artworks, and declared them "genuine" ancient artifacts.

The stunt worked. Lara had proven he had made the works himself, not smuggled them out of ancient sites. Finally convinced of his innocence, prison officials released him in January 1975 after he'd served only seven months of his sentence.

After his release, Alfonso Medellín Zenil, head of the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, offered Lara a job. "Our policy is, when you can't beat them, hire them," Fernando Winfield Capitaine, then the museum's director, joked to Connoisseur.

The Museo de Antropología is home to an extensive collection of artifacts from Mexico's Gulf Coast produced by ancient indigenous peoples such as the Olmec, the Huastec, and the Totonac. Lara was hired to restore these works as well as to make replicas for the museum's gift shop.

But his career as a forger wasn't behind him quite yet.

REVELATIONS AND REFLECTIONS

In the early 1980s, Veracruz governor Agustín Acosta Lagunes began repatriating pre-Columbian works from abroad, expanding the collections at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa. But when Lara saw some of these imported works, which had been purchased at Sotheby's auction house in New York City, he pronounced them fakes. He knew, he said, because he'd made many of them—including a figure of a male dancer that had been exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History’s “Ancient Art of Veracruz” exhibit in 1971.

Little by little, it emerged that Lara’s works might have made their way into pre-Columbian art collections around the world, including in prestigious museums such as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum, as well as in renowned private collections. Lara claimed credit for a 3-foot statue of the Mexican wind god Ehecatl in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and out of approximately 150 works on display in the "Ancient Art of Veracruz" exhibit, asserted that he had made about a dozen.

Among the most notorious fakes Lara claimed to have created were three life-size ceramic sculptures in the Dallas Museum of Art that had once belonged to film director John Huston. "If you look at them closely, they are copies," Lara told the Associated Press in 1987. The works were attributed to the Totonac, and thought to have been made between 600 to 900 CE. Lara, however, claimed to have produced them during the 1950s: "The details are different than the originals … the details in the breast decorations, in the shoulder patches and so on," he said. "They are very different. They are originals of course—my own."

As news spread about Lara’s forgeries, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Met in New York City, and the Dallas Museum of Art responded to the controversy by taking works off display. "All three museums acknowledged that many of the Veracruz-style objects in their collections were problematic," Matthew H. Robb, a former curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum who is now chief curator at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, tells Mental Floss.

Nobody knows exactly how Lara’s creations made their way into American museums (Lara blamed various high-profile art traffickers and dealers), but experts say they noticed when suspicious artifacts resembling his work first began popping up in the 1950s, as pre-Columbian art was becoming more and more popular among American art collectors. "They appeared out of nowhere, resembling nothing previously excavated," Edmund Carpenter, a New York archeologist, told The New York Times. "I saw some in New York, Los Angeles, Paris. Museums bought them, big collectors bought them. But nobody asked, 'How come a big find like this?'"

Bryan Just, a curator and lecturer on pre-Columbian art at the Princeton University Art Museum, chalks the phenomena up to scholarly ignorance. At the time, "there wasn't a lot of material available for comparison," he tells Mental Floss. "There are many regions, including Veracruz … where not a whole lot of archeology had been done. So for a lot of these [new] artworks, there weren't great sources to reference that answered questions like, 'How should this stuff really look?' And at that time, what had been excavated may not have been published."

There was also a shortage of experts to consult because the very idea of pre-Columbian relics as art was still relatively new. Connoisseurs only began collecting and selling these works in the early 20th century, and university scholars didn’t begin offering pre-Columbian art history courses until the 1950s, according to Just.

Not that collectors were necessarily consulting scholars in the first place: "If you were considering work that was offered to you by a dealer, you may have not wanted to consult a colleague who's an expert in that particular area if they work at a collecting institution," Just says. "You know, out of concern that they might snag it up before you do."

Fortunately, modern scholars have access to a greater body of knowledge about pre-Columbian art than their predecessors. "In retrospect, when I see Lara's stuff now, it seems pretty obvious to me that it's wrong," Just says. "It doesn't make sense when you think about it in terms of the broader context of what we know about these particular traditions."

But even today, it isn't always easy to ascertain what's real and what's not when it comes to pre-Columbian art. Experts sometimes use thermoluminescence tests, which involve removing a tiny piece of the object, grinding it up, heating it in a furnace, and observing how much light it emits. Ideally, this process can measure how long ago the clay was fired, but the results can be skewed if a work was recently exposed to extreme heat or had been cleaned.

Another issue is that "lots of these complicated ceramic sculptures are pastiches," Victoria Lyall, a curator of pre-Columbian art at the Denver Art Museum, tells Mental Floss. Artists "will use bits of older sculptures and put them back together. So you have to test a lot of different spots to really get a better sense of whether the entire piece is fake."

X-rays are a good way to spot a composite, but they interfere with thermoluminescence test results, putting conservationists between a rock and a hard place. Furthermore, clays from certain regions—like the clay Lara worked with in Veracruz—reportedly aren't as conducive to thermoluminescence testing.

A LEGACY OF LIES

Lara is now in his mid-70s. He no longer restores antiques at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa full-time, but he still works as a consultant there, and he continues to make art under his own name. However, his legacy will forever be tied with the difficult history of pre-Columbian artwork. According to experts, it's possible that his artworks are still masquerading as artifacts around the world, and that he may have even helped shape modern scholars' perception of pre-Columbian art from Veracruz.

However, it's also feasible that Lara's stories are a composite of fact and fiction—just like his work. The artist claims to have made thousands of forgeries (one estimate places the number at more than 40,000 pieces), but some experts say it would have been nearly impossible for Lara—who was only in his 30s when he was arrested—to have produced so many works in just a few decades.

Plus, the timelines don't always add up: Lara "was about 8 years old at the time that the [Ehecatl statue] was supposedly manufactured and purchased by the Met," Lyall says.

Lara also claims to have been self-taught, but some have speculated that he's stretched the truth about his natural talent. He may have instead learned his trade by apprenticing at a young age in a Veracruz workshop that specialized in forgeries, theorizes Jesse Lerner, a professor of media studies at Pitzer College. Lara "denies all that, but it's hard to know … Just by the nature of his business, it's kind of shady," Lerner tells Mental Floss. (Lerner's 1999 documentary Ruins—a look at the history of Mexican archeology and the traffic in fakes—features an interview with Lara.)

This workshop might have sold both Lara's wares and similar works to international collectors through an established underground market. Such a scenario would explain the artist's familiarity with pieces in faraway collections, like the Met's statue, which he could describe in great detail despite likely having never produced it with his own hands. Because forgeries aren't exactly signed, it's difficult to know for sure which pieces are Lara's and which may have been made by other forgers.

Either way, Lara's frauds are a reminder to avoid believing everything you read—even if it's a label in a museum. And they offer another lesson, too.

"The types of ancient works that Lara and other forgers were imitating, they weren't intended as aesthetic objects," Lerner says. "They weren't for museums. They were representations of this whole world view of cosmic forces."

That makes forgeries like Lara's particularly problematic. "If the only way we can access that worldview is through these objects that survive, [Lara] is just adding bad data to the pool of data that we have available. He's messing up everyone's understanding of who these figures are representing, and how their universe was understood and functioned."

In other words, sometimes fakes don't just fool art lovers—they can also change our understanding of history.

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10 Cold War Artifacts From the Real-Life Bridge of Spies Auction
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U-2 designer Kelly Johnson with Francis Gary Powers (left to right).
U.S. Air Force, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The 2015 Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies tells the story of a captured U.S. Air Force pilot who was released from Soviet prison in exchange for the freedom of a KGB spy during the Cold War. To mark the 55-year anniversary of that historic prisoner swap, Guernsey’s is auctioning off items that belonged to the real-life military hero Francis Gary Powers.

The artifacts, donated to the auction house by Powers’s son, depict what life was like for an American spy during the Cold War. The Espionage Collection includes gear built for high-altitude covert missions, as well as documents written by Powers during his imprisonment. Here are some of the most fascinating objects going up for bid on October 6 and 7.

1. HIGH-ALTITUDE FLIGHT SUIT

Flight suit used on air force jet.

On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers attempted to fly deeper into Soviet airspace than any U.S. reconnaissance mission had gone before. The U-2 plane was famously shot down and its pilot captured, turning what should have been a covert operation into a historic Cold War pressure point. When the auction opens in October, one lucky bidder will snag a perfect copy of the flight suit Powers wore that day. Never-been-worn, the suit still includes its two intact air hoses, similar to those that kept Powers alive when flying through the upper atmosphere. Similar technology was used to build the gear worn by astronauts and cosmonauts during the space race.

Starting bid: $5000

2. INFLATABLE RAFT

Raft used on military jet.

While the flight suit above was never actually worn by Powers, this raft was likely on board his U-2 with him the day it was shot down in 1960. Experts believe the item was salvaged and displayed in a Soviet museum following the failed reconnaissance mission. After the museum was looted, the raft was allegedly used by local fishermen for years before it was returned to Powers’s family. The flotation device measures 7-by-15-feet folded and features its original plastic inflation tube still bearing old teeth marks.

Starting bid: $750

3. SOVIET PROPAGANDA POSTER

Soviet propaganda poster.

The Bridge of Spies auction features several Soviet Union propaganda posters, including prints of Lady Justice and Vladimir Lenin. This Soviet workers poster, with a gold hammer and sickle against a field of grain, showcases some of the most iconic imagery from the era.

Starting bid: $250

4. FLUID CONTAINMENT VESSEL

Fluid containment vessel used by air force pilots.

When you've got to go, you've got to go—even if you’re a spy in the middle of a top-secret mission thousands of miles above Soviet soil. For long U-2 flights, Powers zipped this container into one of the pockets of his suit and pulled it out when he needed to relieve himself. As the item description reads, “This historic and straightforward piece of equipment proves that smart design can take you great distances.”

Starting bid: $500

5. HOUSE OF UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES BOOKS

Six Cold War-era booklets spread out on a table.

The U.S. government formed the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938 to investigate citizens and organizations with suspected Soviet leanings. These six booklets dictate hearings from the committee in 1960 and outline the “subversive activities of anyone believed to have ties to Communist organizations.” They provide important context for how Cold War tensions manifested in America the year Powers was captured.

Starting bid: $200

6. POWERS’S PRISON JOURNAL

Cover of an old notebook.

Faced with up to 10 years in USSR custody, Gary Powers started teaching himself Russian shortly after he was sentenced. His notebook from that time contains two pages of English words paired with their Russian definitions handwritten in pencil. Despite his status as a prisoner of war, this behavior actually got him into trouble back in the States. Anti-Soviet sentiments were so high at the time that Powers was branded a traitor for daring to learn the language of the enemy. Fortunately this label didn’t last forever, and today he’s considered a military hero.

Starting bid: $750

7. GARY POWERS’S TRENCH COACH

Tan trench coat on a coat hanger.

Nothing says “spy” like a good, vintage trench coat. This tan London Towne jacket worn by Powers in the 1960s was originally made for Army officers. The durable cotton garment features one visible button at the neck and four concealed lower buttons for a sleek, mysterious look.

Starting bid: $600

8. FALLOUT FORECAST MAP OF THE U.S.

Map of the U.S. framed behind glass.

Nuclear conflict wasn’t just a vague threat for many Americans during the Cold War—it was an imminent reality they needed to prepare for. This atmosphere of terror produced such items as this nuclear fallout map, published by the District of Columbia Office of Civil Defense in 1960. The 28.5-by-40.5-inch map depicts the contiguous United States with the longitude and latitude points of potential radioactive decay.

Starting bid: $200

9. PIECE OF THE IRON CURTAIN

A section of lattice iron fencing.

In addition to being one of the most powerful metaphors of the Cold War, the Iron Curtain was also a literal barrier that divided Eastern and Western Europe in some rural parts of the continent. This rare 11-by-16-inch patch of iron fencing shows the welded design that prevented many Eastern Europeans from escaping Communist rule from the late 1940s to 1991.

Starting bid: $350

10. A LETTER FROM POWERS TO HIS WIFE

Pages of a letter and a postcard.

Powers wrote a letter to his wife Barbara on December 13, 1960, seven months after his capture. He wrote of his condition in the facility as well as his outlook on his situation. "As long as I do not lose hope everything will be alright,” he said. “I haven't lost hope yet." He was also interested in the new president-elect John F. Kennedy, who would come to have a major impact on the Cold War following his inauguration in 1961. Powers wrote: "Would you send me a copy of Kennedy's inauguration speech and any other statements he makes. I am very interested in what his views are and especially what his foreign policy will be..." As well as giving insight into Powers’s state of mind during this time, the document is also a Russian artifact, sporting full-color Soviet-era stamps.

Starting bid: $1500

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