Text size

German prosecutors in Nuremberg have launched an investigation into whether an artist's gold-colored gnome giving a stiff-armed Hitler salute violates the country's strict laws against the use of Nazi symbols.

The gnome, standing 35 centimeters (14 inches) tall, is one of 700 made by German artist Ottmar Hoerl that were displayed in Belgium and Italy. Nuremberg prosecutors are investigating after a complaint to local police, said spokesman Wolfgang Traeg.

"We've asked both the artist and the gallery owner to explain what the intention is," said Traeg, spokesman for the Nuremberg prosecutors. "It's not a crime if it can be proved that the artist was being critical of the Nazis."

Giving the outlawed Hitler salute or using Nazi symbols is a crime in Germany punishable by up to three years in prison.

Hoerl, who also created the giant blue and yellow euro symbol that was erected in front of the European Central Bank headquarters in Frankfurt in 2001, said he was astonished by the fuss about his bearded dwarfs.

"I'd have been executed by the Nazis if I had portrayed the 'super race' as gnomes in 1942," the 59-year-old German artist was quoted telling Stern magazine's online edition.

The golden gnome, with an impish grin, was originally one of 700 used in a 2008 exhibition called "Dance with the Devil" in the Belgium city of Ghent. The gnomes were also displayed without objection in Bolzano, Italy and Aschaffenburg, Germany.

"In Belgium everyone understood what was meant," Hoerl said. The gnomes have the word "poisoned" inscribed on their base.

The gnomes are for sale -- 50 euros (e70.53) each -- and about 400 of the 700 originals still in the collection are currently on display in Aschaffenburg.

Hoerl has a penchant for gnomes. In 2006 he produced 1,200 gnomes in the colours of Germany's national flag -- black, red and gold -- for an exhibition in Karlsruhe.

Gnomes originate in Germany from the late 19th century and feature in many German fairy tales, both as a force for good and evil.