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Normandy Tank Museum Closes Its Doors; Auctions Off Tanks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Normandy, France, site of the D-Day landings during World War II, a museum auctioned off its collection yesterday. Vintage uniforms, guns, vehicles and tanks - yes, tanks - and many of them are restored to full working order. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley attended the auction and sends this report.

UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: One-hundred thirty-thousand euros.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: More than a thousand people packed the auction hall. And calls came in from across Europe, and as far away as the U.S. and the Middle-East. The $4.2 million sale broke records for auction house Artcurial, which usually specializes in classic cars.

Many of the items fetched amounts well above their estimated price. Artcurial's managing director, Matthieu Lamoure, says there was an added emotional value to this sale.

MATTHIEU LAMOURE: This is a piece of history. And it is thanks to this D-Day we are in peace now. There is something very emotional, sensitive in this museum.

BEARDSLEY: The Normandy Tank Museum is just a few miles from Omaha Beach, where allied forces landed in 1944.

The private collection was the life's work of Air France pilot and history buff Patrick Nerrant. Nerrant says it all began 35 years ago when he restored an American Army Air Force plane and wanted a Jeep to go with it.

PATRICK NERRANT: So I bought a jeep. And after it's a Jeep, a Dodge and a half-track and a tank. It's some kind of an obsession, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Nerrant opened his museum three years ago but says there were too few visitors and too many taxes to keep it running. His collection boasted nine tanks, including a Chrysler Sherman M4 that fought in the Battle of Normandy. Nerrant fully restored it with exact vintage parts, from its 105-millimeter gun to a pair of 1943 binoculars.

(SOUNDBITE OF TANK ENGINE)

BEARDSLEY: On Saturday, Nerrant and one of his sons fired up a couple Sherman M4s and roared around the museum grounds. Their engines sent out bursts of fire and plumes of smoke and left spectators agog.

Just as I was wondering who in the world would buy such a monster, a gentleman standing next to me spoke up. His voice was full of emotion.

JOSE PELETIER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "That's a magnificent noise," he says, patting his chest. He tells me it moves him deep down in his gut. The man is 63-year-old Jose Peletier, who's come to Normandy from the Loire Valley with his son.

As it turns out, Peletier already has two tanks of his own. He says there's nothing like driving a 70-year-old vehicle that fought in this war and runs like new. Peletier says he loves French history, World War II and America. When he was young, he dreamed of such things, but he had no money.

PELETIER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: He says it was his son who got him into collecting 15 years ago.

PELETIER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "When he was 12, he loved all this, too. And it woke up my passion again," says Peletier.

As for the museum's owner, Patrick Nerrant says he was delighted with the auction results, even though it means turning a page. But Nerrant says he hasn't lost his passion. And he kept a couple tanks for himself. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Normandy, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.