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Smuggling antiques from East to West - a pensioner's pastime

By Terry SwartzbergSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 1984



East Berlin, 8:30 a.m. Hilda Lowenhaupt is trying not to clink as she goes past East German customs officials.

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She is on her way to her annual visit with Dorothea, her childhood friend who now lives in West Berlin. Once a butcher's helper, Ms. Lowenhaupt (a pseudonym) is one of more than 2 million retired East Germans who are allowed 30 days of travel into the West every 13 months.

She will not come to West Berlin empty-handed. Hidden in her coat lining is the better part of an early 19th-century Dresden tea service. A silver serving platter is sewn into her dress.

These treasures are from Dorothea's family. Dorothea, as a Westerner, cannot bring them over. So Hilda Lowenhaupt is waging her own rectification campaign. West Berlin, 2:30 p.m.

Soberly dressed representatives of the East German State Monopoly for Art give one another appreciative smiles. The auction of 600 antique dolls at the West Berlin auction house of Schroder & Co. is going well.

The dolls, beautiful hand-painted specimens from the last three centuries, are being eagerly bid for by Western dealers. The buyers are pleased as well, because the winning bids are still 30 to 70 percent less than they would pay on the Western market, according to a prominent West Berlin antiques dealer.

Only the collector, who is said by West Berlin antique dealers to be an East Berlin pensioner, cannot be too happy. He was apparently forced by the State Monopoly for Art to sell the fruits of years of patient searching to the East German State Monopoly at a nominal price.

Six of the seven East-bloc countries - excluding Poland - have systematically organized the sale of old and valuable antiques to large Western auction houses and department stores. Their eagerness to do so comes from their desperate shortage of hard currency and is exceeded only by their own citizens' determination to sell the antiques themselves. West Berlin, 10 a.m.

Ms. Lowenhaupt is drinking coffee with her friend Dorothea in the latter's house in residential Lichterfelde. Armed with a gift of 100 marks (about $40) from Dorothea, Ms. Lowenhaupt will shop for such scarce consumer goods as a clothesline, butter, and a spare bit for her son-in-law's drill. Then she will run the gantlet once more in the evening.

Hundreds of thousands of pensioners smuggle goods from East to West each year. They estimate the chances of being caught at 1 in 15. Detection means revocation forever of the right to travel, which does not noticeably deter Polish, Hungarian, Czechoslovakian, or East German retirees. They have ready buyers in the antiques dealers they knew from before World War II. Their quiet, well-established commercial relationships make the ''front-line'' cities of Vienna and West Berlin the bargain-antiques capitals of Europe. East Berlin, 12 noon

The same customs officials who will later hold Ms. Lowenhaupt's future in their hands are positively deferential to the visitor from the West. He is a representative of a large West German auction house and is being escorted by an East German official. The formalities are waived, and the representative is ushered into a chauffeured automobile, which takes him to a large warehouse on the northern border of East Berlin.