Smuggling antiques from East to West - a pensioner's pastime
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Inside are shelves lined with Meissen porcelain from the late 18th century, whose quality matches the finest work from China. A cupboard holds Jugendstyl vases and bowls, glasswork as exquisite as that of its contemporary, Tiffany. Several rooms are filled with Biedermeier furniture, made in the 1820s and 1830s to last forever.Skip to next paragraph
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There are similar warehouses in Prague, Budapest, Bucharest, Romania, and Sofia, Bulgaria. The antiques have been gathered by the East-bloc authorities from:
1. Expropriated churches and church property. The best example is the Soviet Union's sale of Greek Orthodox icons.
2. Relics from past regimes, such as castles from the Austro-Hungarian empire.
3. Property of former citizens, be they the 1956 Hungarian refugees, ethnic Germans ''bought'' from Romania (for whom the West German government pays Romania about 30,000 marks per person), those fleeing Poland, or East German refugees living in West Germany. Nearly all were forced to leave most of their worldly goods behind in the custody of Eastern authorities.
4. Dispossessed heirs. Unless one is a direct relative of an East-bloc citizen, the chances - as one of the millions of Westerners with family in the East - of inheriting a relic are very slim.
5. Expropriated collections of private citizens.
The antiques garnered from these five sources are then sold to the West by East-bloc agents.
''You don't come to them, they come to you,'' Wolfgang Schroder, head of the auction house of the same name, says of the agents.
''They are serious people. They want it all - bank guarantees of income, yearly commitments to buy - the whole thing.
''The days when a Westerner could come to them and make a steal are over. They now have a very good idea of what the market is and deal accordingly,'' he continues.
The agents use a legal loophole to get at the collections. Take East Germany. According to legal experts at West Berlin's Free University, East German laws strictly protect the right to private property and the right to have private collections.
However, West German officials at their embassy in East Berlin report surprise visits by tax assessors to East German collectors. The assessors appraise the collection at the full Western value and assess back taxes accordingly. The assessors' visit, these legal experts say, is followed by one from the State Monopoly's officials, who offer a hard-to-resist deal: Sell the collection to us at a token price and your tax problems are over.
Although this antiques business is widespread and ongoing, Western antiques dealers and officials do not want to comment on it. Neither group wants to disturb the close and developing economic and professional ties between East and West.
Asked about his role in the antiques trade, the part-owner of Mecki's Basar replied, ''We do have such a relationship. It's none of your business.'' Mecki's Basar has committed itself to taking 1 million marks' worth (about $380,000) of East German antiques from the State Monopoly each year.
''We do have such cases in our files,'' states Dr. Peter Brietkopf of the Institute for Inter-German Relations in West Berlin, the agency in charge of research on East Germany. ''My superior has forbidden me to say anything more.''