The scenic seaside resort town of Heikendorf, Germany is now world famous thanks to an eccentric pensioner who amassed a World War II arsenal in his home—including a monstrous 40-ton tank, now known as the “Panther of Heikendorf,” he kept stowed in the cellar. The Panther, which following its menacing World War II career turned up in a junkyard in southern England, was brought to Germany via the Netherlands in 1977. Following repairs at a workshop in Solingen, the collector reportedly installed the mammoth war machine in his basement in the 1980s.

The 84-year-old former financier, named only as Klaus-Dieter F. by German sources, also managed to store a torpedo, an 88 mm flak cannon, 70 assault rifles and machine guns, an unspecified number of semi and fully automatic pistols, and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition at his quiet suburban mansion. The items were reportedly no longer functional. 

Klaus-Dieter, known to contemporaries as a thrifty and reclusive character, is reported to have spent decades transforming his cellar into what some German media have dubbed a Ruhmeshalle—a German-style hall of fame—for the tank. The cellar featured imperial “Reich eagles” on the walls and a ramp lined by granite sculptures shaped like soldiers’ heads. The tank was placed in a central hollowed space in what appeared to be a permanent installation.

The man’s neighbors claim that the tank’s presence was openly known in the community. Various local residents alleged that Klaus-Dieter drove the armored vehicle in town, once allegedly after a blizzard, and they expressed a sense of resignation to his eccentricities.

Authorities were alerted in 2005 when local government officials of the Public Order Office conducted an inspection and stumbled across the hoard. Debates among various ministries about licenses and legalities ensued, and no actions were taken to remove the weapons.

The situation finally reached a breaking point in summer 2015 when Berlin police, following a lead in an investigation on Nazi artwork, conducted a search of the home. In addition to the arsenal, the police discovered a trove of Nazi memorabilia, including busts of Hitler, mannequins outfitted in Nazi uniforms, swastika pennants and SS rune-shaped lamps. They also found an Arno Breker bronze sculpture of a nude man, once reputedly located outside Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, in an outdoor garden. The collector also owned a replica of a V-1 rocket.

Dismantling Klaus-Dieter’s fortress-like abode was a military operation in itself. In 2015 it took 20 Bundeswehr soldiers about nine hours to extract the Panther tank from his cellar. The undertaking required six Pionierpanzer Dachs AEVs (armored engineering vehicles) positioned at different angles in the garden to hoist the sunken World War II killing machine with winches.

Concerns were raised that the collector had violated Germany’s War Weapons Control Act, sparking an ongoing public debate about the fine line of distinction between collectors’ items and military weapons. Klaus-Dieter himself was reportedly upset that his items may have been damaged during their removal.

The drama continues to unfold in courtrooms. As of July 2021, it is reported that Klaus-Dieter is obligated to break up his formidable collection and find new owners for his antique weapons. That will likely prove a simple task—many other collectors have shown eagerness to lighten his load, including a U.S. museum that has expressed interest in buying the now-notorious “Panther of Heikendorf.”

German legislators continue to debate whether the trove violated the War Weapons Control Act, with the defense arguing that most of the weapons were non-functional and prosecutors contending that some objects could still be used. The court is expected to reach a decision in August.  MH