For sale: works seized by Stasi

The East German intelligence service confiscated hundreds of items in the 1970s and 1980s, which are now being returned to their rightful owners and their heirs


New York

On 4 June, Bonhams in London will sell a Lobmeyr- enamelled liquor set and case, designed by Heinrich Bergmann and produced by the Schuerer workshop in Vienna around 1872. This was seized by the Stasi (the East German secret police) in 1982 from an art dealer and collector in Dresden.

The glass set (est £2,000-£3,000; $3,880-$5,820), was returned to its consignor from the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Berlin, where it had been housed since the Stasi seized it.

The Lobmeyr ensemble is just one of hundreds of works confiscated by the Stasi, mostly during the 1970s and 1980s, to fuel a state-run export business with the official goal of earning hard currency for the communist regime. As claims arise from families seeking to recover that property, more objects seized by the East German intelligence service could soon be coming onto the market.

Works range from the modestly priced Lobmeyr set to monumental old master paintings such as Cornelis van Haarlem’s Hercules and Achelous, 1590. The eight-foot high scene of Hercules fighting with a bull sold at Christie’s New York on 15 April for $8.1m (The Art Newspaper, May 2008, p66). The price for the work, described by Christie’s specialist Nicholas Hall as “the greatest, most important Northern Mannerist picture to have come on the market in a generation,” exceeded the auction record for a painting by this artist by 1,300% and more than quadrupled the firm’s high estimate for the work.

Systematic theft

Before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Stasi’s plan was to cash in on art and other valuable pieces, says Ulf Bischof, a lawyer in Berlin who represents claimants from Germany’s pre-reunification era (known as the DDR years). Dr Bischof, the author of Art and Antiquities in the Era of Commercial Co-ordination, published in Berlin by Humboldt University (2003), has researched the systematic operation of the Stasi enterprise, known by its codename “Ko-Ko”. This identified and seized art, furniture, stamps and other valuable objects from private citizens to sell them for foreign currency.

During the 1970s and 1980s, he estimates that some 150 to 200 private collections were confiscated. The standard Stasi procedure was to identify a collection, present the owners with a bill for unpaid inheritance taxes, and then allow the art and other valuables to be taken as payment when the family failed to find the funds for the massive amount “owed”.

The communist state had many times the number of intelligence agents per capita than the Nazis, who are more frequently associated with looted art.

Dealers targeted

The expropriation intensified in the early 1970s, after voluntary sales from citizens produced insufficient inventory. Ko-Ko then targeted East Germany’s remaining art dealers. Hardest hit among them was Helmuth Meissner, a Dresden dealer, who was put in a psychiatric institution in 1982 when he resisted the seizure of his collection. Other dealers were imprisoned.

By looting dealers’ collections, Dr Bischof says, Ko-Ko built its own inventory and eliminated any potential local competition, fortifying its monopoly on the exports of art. Paintings, decorative arts, stamps, and jewellery were sold through middlemen, galleries and auction houses in the West, and were dispersed to Germany, Europe, Britain, and Australia (Ko-Ko also sold arms).

Dr Bischof notes that Ko-Ko was founded and overseen by East Germany’s deputy minister of foreign trade, Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski (who fled the DDR in 1989 and subsists comfortably on the proceeds of his memoirs in a village outside Munich). One of its managers, Axel Hilpert, is now co-owner of Resort Schwielowsee, which hosted the G8 ministers last year. Code-named “Monika”, Mr Hilpert landed on his feet after 1990, in real estate, telling the press that his years in Ko-Ko had enabled him to build useful contacts in business and politics.

Ko-Ko also looted museums, ordering them to provide works for export from their storerooms. In some cases, when curators feared that important works seized from private citizens might be sold abroad, the museums could barter from their own holdings to take in those objects.

The Lobmeyr glass set came from the Meissner collection. It was withdrawn from export after its seizure in 1982 at the insistence of East German curators, and stored during the DDR years at Schloss Koepenick. In autumn 2006, the Meissner heirs and Dr Bischof were informed that a Meissen cabinet was due to be sold at Sotheby’s Great Exhibition sale on 31 October, organised by the glass specialist Simon Cottle. The family reached an agreement to share the eventual £209,600 ($305,000) sale price with the consignor. Mr Cottle, who now works at Bonhams, insists that the consignor to the Sotheby’s sale knew nothing of the cabinet’s DDR provenance.


In Berlin, Christie’s representative, Victoria von Specht, says the trickle of restituted Stasi-looted works coming to auction has not grown, defying expectations. “We were all thinking that there would be more, but in fact there has been no major work given back until now. Everybody’s wondering about that,” she said, noting that restitution claims are usually not public matters in German courts.

A number of those claims are being handled by Dr Bischof. He admits that many of the Stasi-looted works have not been traced, but says they include paintings by familiar artists, although usually works “of the second rank”. He predicts that most works recovered won’t be worth as much as Van Haarlem’s Hercules and Achelous, sold in April.

At Sotheby’s London, the restitution specialist Richard Aronowitz-Mercer has found no evidence that Ko-Ko sold any of its seized objects through Sotheby’s auctions, although Dr Bischof would not rule that out. Evidence of ownership, Mr Aronowitz-Mercer predicts, will be stronger and more legally persuasive for the owners of art looted by the Stasi than it is today for most claimants of art taken by the Nazis: “The provenance is less elusive because the occurrence of looting is more recent. All the parties are still alive, usually.”