Remnants of eastern Germany's Communist past auctioned off

June 19, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- Knickknacks, chinaware, art objects, oddments of clothing and just plain junk from the closets of East German communism were auctioned yesterday to make room for the coming of Chancellor Helmut Kohl to Berlin.

Auctioneer Bernd E. Schulz labored mightily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., rattling through the sale of hundreds of items from the offices of Willi Stoph, the prime minister of East Germany when the Berlin Wall came down. Mr. Stoph, 77, is in jail awaiting the outcome of investigation of his Communist past.

Mr. Stoph's office, sealed since the end of the Communist German Democratic Republic in 1990, is being cleared to make room for the offices of German Federal Republic Chancellor Kohl.

Most of the items sold at auction -- from a half-dozen Meissen porcelain busts of Lenin to a Chinese vase from Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk -- were presents to Mr. Stoph or things he planned to present to deserving comrades.

Some items were inexplicable: 200 identical, extremely ugly straw hats, for example.

"You could speculate that every day he liked to put on a new hat," said Mr. Schulz, an energetic salesman whose spiel would do justice to any auctioneer anywhere.

He also sold 100 identical plastic raincoats but only four umbrellas.

The auction attracted about 2,000 people throughout the day to the hulking gray building that once housed the East German government ministries.

Nobody seemed to have come out of nostalgia for the old regime, or even to pick up souvenirs. Mr. Schulz, for example, couldn't sell two busts of Ernst Thaelmann, perhaps the most admired of the Communist heroes. Thaelmann was killed by the Nazi Gestapo long before the GDR was founded.

Bidders were nearly all hard-nosed dealers or knowledgeable collectors looking for bargains. One buyer came armed with a handbook of kitsch and needed it.

The man who bought a bust of Lenin said he bought it because it was a Meissen.

"You can always sell Meissen," he said. Meissen ware, sometimes called Dresden china, is prized porcelain made in Meissen, a city in the old GDR. Mr. Stoph had lots of it.

About half of what Mr. Schulz sold was pretty good crystal and chinaware, the kind of stuff your grandmother or great-grandmother liked, especially if she was German. The Communist Mr. Stoph seemed to have perfectly bourgeois taste.

The 3-foot-tall lacquerware vase that Prince Sihanouk gave to Mr. Stoph went to Alex Knoll, 29, who has been to China often and likes anything Chinese. The Sihanouk vase looks more Chinese than Cambodian. Mr. Knoll got the prince's calling card with the vase and a smashing silk-covered carrying case.

Hans Probst, a furniture dealer from Munich, bought the 200 straw hats for 50 marks, about 12 cents each. "I bid because nobody else did," he said, with a shrug.

"What if they don't fit you?" a TV news person asked.

"I have lots of relatives," he said.

Mr. Schulz had trouble selling 16 sports trophies from an East German track meet. "It's little sad," he said. "People worked hard to get trophies like these."

But a little bronze statue of a seated Lenin looking pensive sold easily, mostly because it was quite charming and not 40 feet tall and made of concrete.

The biggest price of the day, 4,300 marks (about $2,700), went for a vaguely modern non-ideological figure by 90-year-old Theo Balden, an East German sculptor whose works are increasingly prized.

Mr. Schulz made the Federal Republic about $150,000, less his commission. "Come see me next week," he said. "I'll be selling trucks and tanks from the East German army."

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