VOGELSANG, Germany -- From the moment he first saw the little village castle with a "For Sale" sign on the front door and battlements looming against the sky, Hans-Rainer Schielke knew he had to have it.
Never mind that it was damp and drafty, with falling plaster, rotting beams and peeling wallpaper. Never mind that a huge owl patrolled the dark attic like a fluttering spirit, or that the grounds were choked with weeds, or that the place seemed more dungeon than palace.
Schielke, 43, looked and saw his future, as well as a bit of his past. He and his parents had fled west from this very region in the late 1950s, only a few years before the Communists closed the border.
Feeling that he'd come home at last, the west German businessman plunked down a winning bid of more than $3 million to purchase and renovate the place. Last month the sale became official, making him the latest buyer in one of the world's most unusual real estate offerings: the peddling of nearly 100 castles, mansions and manor houses dotting the long-neglected landscape of the former East Germany.
It is an exercise dedicated to the decidedly capitalist proposition that if you can't be to the manor born, you can at least be to the manor bought.
Dismantling a country
The sell-off began in 1992, run by Treuhand, the agency set up by the German government to peddle or dismantle every last scrap of East German state-owned industry and property.
Some estates were reclaimed by families that had lost them years ago, either to Nazi confiscation in the 1930s and '40s, or to postwar Communist nationalization. Some families wanted to unload the properties, and those were put on the market along with unclaimed properties.
The hope was that buyers would not only provide money for the government, but would also add economic life to their new communities by fixing up the old properties and putting them to use once again.
So far, 29 have been sold for a total of about $17.5 million, with $55 million in renovations pledged. The transactions range from a few hundred thousand dollars for smaller, crumblier places to about $5.3 million for the grandiose Schloss Wolfsbrunn, a castle near Chemnitz being converted to a luxury hotel. Another 50 properties are to be put up for sale along with 14 still available from earlier listings.
'Fairy tales for sale'
The sale generated relatively little public attention until October 1994, when Treuhand's real estate holding company published a glossy, full-color, 124-page sales catalog. Titled, in English, "Fairy tales for sale," it listed 20 properties, including the former gifts of kings and homes of knights, noblemen and monks.
Thousands of the catalogs were distributed around the world, and that's when Schielke and nearly 300 other bidders got interested.
"Nothing is built in this kind of style anymore," he said, standing in the gloom of the castle's entrance hall. It was a chilly spring afternoon, and he warmed himself before a small fire built in a splendid old fireplace built of green ceramic tiles, while his 3-year-old twins, Max and Celine, tossed scrap wood on the flames.
"My family was originally from Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania,"the state where the castle is located, he said. His father went west in 1958. A year later the rest of them followed: "My mother, three children and a handbag."
They settled in the west German state of Hesse, although "I never did get used to the accent," he said. "Maybe it's just part of my northern German mentality. I always wanted to return."
And now he has, as a man grown wealthy from his engineering and construction businesses in the Rhine-Main area. He hopes to spend the next two years fixing up Manor Vogelsang for use by his employees and his extended family as a retreat and business training center. Someday he hopes to live here as well.
Schielke is trying to avoid coming across among his new neighbors as a stereotypical "Wessi," those big-shot west Germans who've taken over so much of the commercial landscape in the east.
He has set up a new business in the state to provide a few jobs, he's bought houses in a nearby town and is fixing them up, and he's letting the local riding club continue boarding its horses rent-free in the castle stables (in exchange, the club will raise and train three foals he bought recently).
Similarly modest plans are typical among the winning bidders. No longer are the places the province of those such as "Mad Ludwig," a young Bavarian king of the late 1800s who nearly bankrupted the state treasury by building one magnificent castle after another.
"East Germany is no playground for eccentrics," affirmed Sabine Pentrop, spokeswoman for the selling agency. "None of the plans for use are extraordinary."
Nor do they yet include any U.S. buyers, although there were 16 American bids in the initial rush.