East Germany's Blood Art No Justice for Victims of Regime's Treasure Hunt
East German officials systematically stole from the country's art collectors and sold their possessions to raise hard currency. Families have sought for years to reclaim the treasures or to obtain compensation. In a rare success, one family in America recently retrieved some of its heirlooms.
They showed up outside the apartment at 6 a.m. More than a dozen people, including agents from East Germany's feared secret police, the Stasi, tax officials, police officers and public prosecutors, presented the East Berlin doctor and art collector Peter Garcke with a search warrant on suspicion of tax evasion. Seconds later, the men marched through his flat, examining the antique furniture Garcke had in his living room and bedroom. Then, they took him away.
His apartment was completely emptied. "The looting was so extensive that they poured the sugar out of the tin sugar dispenser and removed flowers from the vases. They even took travel souvenirs and small gifts," his wife Rita recalls. "They didn't even leave me a chair to sit on." After that gray February morning in 1978, Rita Garcke never saw her husband again.
"Visit me, visit me! Try everything!" he wrote her from prison. But not long later, she received word of his death, though the cause wasn't included. On April 7, 1978, a Stasi file notes, Peter Gaucke died during pre-trial custody in Berlin's Keibelstrasse, "detention room 235." He allegedly took his own life: "Strangulation in bed" by way of "pajama bottoms twisted together," is how the Stasi described the incident.
Targeting Art Aficionados
It is a particularly ugly chapter in the history of communist East Germany (GDR). Political functionaries from the Communist Party, the SED, seized the property of collectors like Peter Garcke to sell their possessions. The more desperately the country needed hard Western currency, the more often officials targeted East German art aficionados.
Numerous spies combed the country looking for possible treasures, such as Baroque furniture, paintings, porcelain and silver. Then, the GDR's most important procurer of hard currency, Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, would hawk the confiscated wares to rich clients in the West via the state-owned company Kunst & Antiquitäten GmbH (Art & Antiques).
SPIEGEL reported on the looting in the spring of 1991, not long after the collapse of East Germany, and a parliamentary investigative committee examined the systematic robbery perpetrated by the East Germany on its citizens. Over two decades later, many victims or their family members are still today fighting unsuccessfully for the return of their property.
Collectors and their heirs have now opened their private archives to SPIEGEL and spoken about the injustices visited upon them. In addition, secret documents from the Stasi and the SED contain new details, such as the fact that more than 200 GDR citizens had their collections taken from them between 1973 and 1989. But experts, such as the attorneys Ulf Bischof and Detlev Gudat, who represent numerous plaintiffs, believe that far more people were dispossessed.
Most often, the collectors were accused of having violated GDR tax laws. Authorities demanded back payments of up to 2 million East German marks while the Stasi locked collectors away in pre-trial detention and confiscated their property. They were then sentenced to long prison terms. Finally, after the GDR had received the money from the sale of the looted art to Western dealers, they often profited a second time: The imprisoned art collectors were sold into freedom in the West, as was common for political prisoners at the time.
Thus far, no Western buyer has publicly admitted to having profited from the suffering of East German art collectors. But their property found its way to exclusive antique shops in Hamburg, Bremen, Düsseldorf, Munich, Wiesbaden and West Berlin, among other places. Prominent actors, companies, fashion designers and musicians were also among the clients. The works up for sale included paintings by such luminaries as Max Liebermann and Otto Dix in addition to other prominent 20th century artists. In 1985, a Munich auction house sold off 90 works from well-known artists that came from East Germany. Even today, antique dealers in Munich continue to rave about the times when one could "park huge amounts of illicit money" in East Germany "and get stinking rich."
Imprisonment and Suicide Attemps
One of the victims was Werner Schwarz. For the monument conservator from Rathenow, not far from Berlin, it didn't even matter that he was recognized by the East German state as an "authorized artisan" and his collection of furniture and other household items from the 18th century was officially listed.
At dawn on Dec. 8, 1981, two men stood on his doorstep. One said they had come to check his water meter. The other put his hand on Schwarz's shoulder after entering his home and said: "You are under arrest for tax evasion." They said that the objects he had been keeping in his home for decades had appreciated in value and that Schwarz owed back taxes as a result. The total was 1.5 million East German marks.
For four days, agents rummaged through his home, even taking wedding rings and a dollhouse Schwarz had built for his daughter. Items that he had inherited, such as photographs of his ancestors, were also confiscated.
As desired by the Stasi, Schwarz was sentenced to five-and-a-half years behind bars and fined 100,000 East German marks. And he lost everything: coins and precious stones along with 1,769 antiques and artworks. While in prison, he attempted suicide, only to be pulled out of the noose at the last second by a cellmate. In 1984, he was sold into freedom in the West and moved with his wife and children to Minden, a town not far from Hanover.
"Somehow, we managed to make ends meet," his widow recalls. "We had nothing left." Barbara Schwarz is now 89 years old and lives modestly in a small apartment with her few remaining family photos hanging on the walls. "We didn't get anything back, not a single picture. Not even our wedding rings."
Whacking a Hornet's Nest
Surprisingly, however, her husband was able to see a piece of his lost collection one last time before his death. In April 1986, he visited an antique shop in the famous West German department store KaDeWe and saw an 18th century grandfather clock on sale for 34,000 deutsche marks. "Where did you get that," he demanded from the salesman, according to his widow. "That's mine!"
Schwarz was able to identify the clock -- a Kleemeyer of the type that Friedrich the Great used to give his officers as a reward for loyalty -- from the engraved conservator's initials. "I bought it for 15,000 deutsche marks from the East Berlin company Kunst & Antiquitäten," the shop's owner told Schwarz, his widow says. "Western dealers buy lots of stuff cheaply from them."
For years, Schwarz tried to regain possession of the clock. Gudat, the attorney, still represents the family today and says that during proceedings in 1987, West Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen called him and said approvingly: "You really whacked a hornets' nest." But Gudat was informed that the city government was wary of starting a conflict with East Germany over the issue. "I was asked to avoid disturbing the calm," he says.
Not long after, he received a 100-page file from the West Berlin Office for the Protection of the Constitution. "The paper contained surprising information," Gundat recalls. "After the Wall was built in 1961, a secret, 60 million deutsche mark fund was established in the West that was not part of the West German budget. For years, the money was used to secretly buy cultural assets from East German museums via middlemen in Denmark, Holland and Belgium." The system allowed the GDR to surreptitiously obtain hard currency.
When Herbert Wehner became federal minister for all-German affairs in 1966 and discovered the fund, he put a stop to the shady trade and East Germany's access to hard currency was cut off for a time. According to the paper received by Gudat, that provided the impetus for East Berlin to begin confiscating the property of private collectors. Gudat believes that politicians in West Germany knew about the practice.
Lost Legal Battles
In the legal wrangling over the Schwarz family's grandfather clock, this knowledge ultimately did little to help Gudat. Neither did the moving testimony from university professor and sport medicine specialist Friedhelm Beuker. He too was a persecuted collector in East Germany; he too ended up in the West. He has since passed away, but in 1987, he tearfully told a West Berlin court of brutal assaults on collectors, of suicides and attempted suicides and of the stolen artworks. "They are still smeared with blood, everyone knows that," he said. "Including the dealers here in the West."
Nevertheless, the Federal Court of Justice ruled against Schwarz in 1988. "Apparently the justices have no idea what is going on over there," Schwarz said bitterly at the time.
Yet it was an open secret among Western collectors that artworks could be had for cheap on the other side of the Wall. Buses organized by Schalck-Golodkowski would pick up German, Dutch, Italian and Japanese art aficionados from luxury GDR hotels in East Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden.
They were taken to the small town of Mühlenbeck, a half-hour drive north of Berlin where a Swedish construction firm built several large halls here in 1973 for Kunst & Antiquitäten. The site was chosen due to its proximity to the Autobahn and to West Berlin -- and it served as the site where loot taken from GDR collectors was stored. The facility had 21,000 square meters (226,000 square feet) of floor space. Every day, up to 10 drivers would deliver loads of baroque armoires, tables made of cherry, paintings and other valuable antiques before they were neatly organized and labeled with price tags.
Each time a group of Western visitors arrived, they would be accompanied by a K&A attendant to the first floor of the main complex, directly to the special furniture warehouse. Inside, they had the chance to view the most valuable pieces, which were kept in well-lit vitrines -- items of porcelain, jewelry and coins. They would then move on to two rooms filled with paintings and rugs.
Major clients enjoyed preferential treatment and were allowed to travel all across East Germany as part of their treasure hunts. One of the best buyers was the internationally renowned gallery owned by Eduard Sabatier of Verden, West Germany, which specialized in Meissner porcelain made near Dresden. One of his employees, a particularly active young antiques dealer, made regular visits to the GDR.
He would begin his shopping tours in Mühlenbeck. From there, he would be chauffeured all across the country by his favorite K&A driver. The trips included visits to the sales outlets of antiques dealers who worked closely with K&A, but also to interim storage sites in barns and villages.
- Part 1: No Justice for Victims of Regime's Treasure Hunt
- Part 2: 'It Seemed Like All of East Germany Was Up for Sale'