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

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

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.

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.

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.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Smuggling antiques from East to West - a pensioner's pastime
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today