"At times it seemed like all of East Germany was up for sale, things were a bit delirious," former K&A driver Joachim Graf recalls today. He says there were times when he would drive the customers from the West all across East Germany in a single day. When he wasn't driving customers, he was often given orders to take his truck and drive to the homes of the East German victims of the art robberies to pick up the goods, often only two or three hours after the state had served the people with search and arrest warrants.
Graf says the families often cried as their heirlooms were seized. "It was very nasty when we arrived to transport the collections," he says.
Pulling the strings behind the scenes was Schalck-Golodkowski. He was a confidant of East German leader and Communist Party chief Erich Honecker and was responsible for the Commercial Coordination (KoKo) department at the Ministry of Foreign Trade. For a time he was arguably one of the most important officials in economically fragile East Germany. Schalck-Golodkowski, who has since retreated from public view and lives on Tegernsee lake in Bavaria, secured billions in loans from the West and ensured that both he and other members of the nomenclature had access to highly sought after luxury goods. By selling East Germans' art and cultural goods, he also guaranteed access to much-needed foreign currency for the SED.
The worse the economic situation became in the East, the more important the company Kunst & Antiquitäten became. The East Germans conducted the grand sell-off under strict secrecy but Schalck-Golodkowski still proved unable to prevent the West German government from catching on to his activities. West Germany's foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), had informants placed close to the official. The BND learned the details about the brutal tactics used by the East German regime to steal art from its own people at least by 1983, when the CEO of K&A migrated to West Germany.
West Germany Never Protested Brutal Action
At the time, intelligence officials informed the conservative West German government led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl -- but the government declined to lodge a protest against the activities with the GDR authorities in question.
In the end, important collectors were persecuted until the fall of the Berlin Wall as decadent bourgeoisie for whom there should be no place in Socialism. "The prevailing attitude was that people couldn't and shouldn't be surrounded by beautiful things," says Berlin photographer and journalist Günter Blutke, who researched the state-sponsored art thefts shortly before the end of the GDR and wrote a book about it. "Those who attempted to do so anyway didn't stand a chance because they were up against a comprehensive organization that had criminal intent."
The policy led to the breaking up of important collections. They included a spectacular inventory of Art Nouveau glass assembled by pensioner Alfred Daugs and a collection of cast-iron art from Dessau that was one of the most diverse in the German-speaking world.
In 1972, authorities in Erfurt took Heinz Dietel into custody on the basis of trumped up charges. They were eventually dropped, but only after the graphic artist and collector had spent six months in pre-trial detention.
Dietel was targeted after agents alerted officials to Dietel's museum-like apartment in the city, full of antique furniture, porcelain, silver and coins. Officials ultimately ordered Dietel to pay back taxes of 1.2 million East German marks. He was also forced to forfeit a part of his collection to K&A, which in turn sold almost everything to customers in the West. A small number of objects remained in East Germany in places like Erfurt's Anger Museum.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dietel's son Matthias, who lives in the United States, fought for years in vain to recover his family legacy. Officials have defended their possession of the works. "I assume that these objects were brought to the museums lawfully," explains Tamara Thierbach, the Erfurt city official responsible for cultural policy and a member of the far-left Left Party. But Thierbach herself is a former Communist Party member, having worked for the Institute for Marxism-Leninism during the GDR era.
Just a few weeks ago, following a settlement reached with officials in Erfurt, 23 of his family's artworks were returned to Dietel, who allowed 54 others to remain in the city museum. However, hundreds of other works that once belonged to the Dietels are still permitted to decorate the homes of Western art lovers who bought them from the East German regime.
Perhaps most embarrassing for the supposedly anti-fascist GDR is the case of Rudolf Kaestner, a man from the state of Thuringia. He evidently helped Jews to hide and protect valuable works of art from the Nazis. The art treasures were kept packed in cartons and boxes for years and stored in an unused room in Kaestner's Erfurt apartment. He had safeguarded them and hadn't even opened the majority of the works.
Agents with the East German secret police, the Stasi, caught wind of the stash and informed Schalk-Golodkowski's K&A. An appraiser assigned by the company then catalogued 10,800 works of art, including a group of panels by German painter Jakob Samuel Beck dating from the 17th century, a watercolor painting by Christian Rohlfs as well as tin-glazed pottery from Thuringia. Many of the works had a note on the back indicating the Jewish owner from the Erfurt area. The appraiser assessed the value of the art works at 1.2 million East German marks. Officials seized them and then sold them to customers in the West.
Kaestner died before the collapse of East Germany and his heirs never went public with what happened. The East German authorities never sought to find the descendants of the works' Jewish owners and nothing is known of the whereabouts of the lost pieces.