Antiques and Artwork

The dwellings of many GDR writers I visited had valuable antiques and artwork on display. Although I knew little about antique furniture, I could recognize top-quality pieces from the Baroque, Empire, Biedermeier, Art Noveau, and other periods without difficulty. I also saw original works of art in these homes, paintings and drawings by twentieth- and nineteenth-century artists, some of them well known: e.g., Carl Spitzweg, Heinrich Zille, and George Grosz. Ulrich Plenzdorf collected original paintings by German artists and displayed them throughout his apartment. Playwright Peter Hacks’s apartment was adorned with antiques and artwork of every kind; it was like a small museum. Also museum-like was the beautiful villa in Berlin-Buch that Günter Kunert and his wife Marianne occupied, along with their cats. Kunert’s own paintings and graphic art works were on display there, visual evidence of his extraordinary talent.

Works by contemporary GDR artists could be purchased at exhibits in art galleries or directly from the artist via a private transaction. Older art works by prominent artists such as the three mentioned above could only be purchased from private parties who were prepared to sell them. Nothing was available on the open market.

There were no antique stores open to the general public in East Germany, and art galleries were few and far between. Antiques and art works of value, such as pieces of old Meissen Porcelain, vintage sterling silver tableware, and old Baltic amber jewelry, were sold for hard Western currency in special state-owned shops located in newer, upscale Interhotels like the Hotel Metropol and Palasthotel in East Berlin. It was not possible to buy such items with East German marks.

In the spring of 1991, a short while after German reunification, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that East German officials from the ruling communist party (the Socialist Unity Party or SED) had systematically stolen from the country’s art collectors and sold their possessions to Western clients to raise the hard currency it desperately needed. Between 1973 and 1989, according to a July 2014 report in SPIEGEL ONLINE (by Rainer Erices, Nicola Kuhrt, and Peter Wensierski), more than 200 GDR citizens had collections taken from them. Most often, the collectors were accused of having violated or evaded GDR tax laws. The confiscation of their valuable possessions was carried out by the secret police (the Stasi), tax officials, and police officers, usually in a surprise raid. The Stasi would lock the collectors away in pre-trial detention, then public prosecutors would sentence them to long prison terms. The confiscated property found its way to exclusive antique shops in large West German cities like Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Düsseldorf. Prominent actors, business persons, fashion designers, musicians, and companies were among the clients. The sale of the confiscated wares to wealthy clients in the West was done via the state-owned company Kunst & Antiquitäten Gmbh (Art & Antiques, LLC). During the 1970s and 1980s, SED spies would comb East Germany in search of treasures—such as antique furniture, paintings, porcelain, silver, and jewelry—for the regime to appropriate.

The systematic robbery perpetrated by SED Party officials on GDR art and antique collectors is a particularly sordid chapter in the history of communist East Germany. Victimized families have been trying, for more than two decades now, to reclaim their property or obtain compensation for the treasures that were taken from them. Today, many victims of looting or their family members are still fighting with little or no success for the return of their valuable property.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I purchased a few pieces of old Meissen and Dresden Porcelain in the state-operated shop in Hotel Metropol and also in the antique shop located in West Berlin’s famous department store, Kaufhaus des Westens (Department Store of the West). As I think about what I have written in this snapshot, I have to wonder if any of these antiques now in my possession were forcibly seized from an East German collector. That is an uncomfortable thought.