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Selling the Wall

November 9, 2009

When the Berlin Wall fell, there was a rush to buy and sell pieces of it. The East German government is known to have pocketed at least 2 million Deutschmarks from this scheme, but the total sum acquired remains unknown.

The Berlin Wall
Leftover pieces of the wall went up for saleImage: AP
A segment of the Berlin Wall located in Potsdamer Platz.
Speculation drove up the price of Wall segments after it fellImage: AP

With the fall of the Wall, the German Democratic Republic decided it would sell off parts of its most notorious construction, with the proceeds to go to humanitarian efforts.

Though some of this money was successfully tracked, it is estimated that much more made its way into private hands when the East German government dissolved on October 3, 1990.

There is no question that the dismantlement of the Wall was preceded by a period of intense speculation accompanied by a high demand for pieces of Berlin's former dividing barrier.

During an auction in Monaco in 1990, the then deteriorating German Democratic Republic managed to garner the equivalent of ninety-thousand euros for a segment of the Wall. What remains elusive, however, is where all this money went.

Those who know aren't telling

A historian with the Berlin Wall Memorial, Ronny Heidenreich has made attempts to track down the missing money but so far he has only encountered more unanswered questions.

According to him, "Today we do not know how much money was earned. We only know that two million Deutschmarks were earned or at least on the bank accounts of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) government. What happened with the rest of the money -it's said to be much, much higher - no one knows."

This is because many of those suspected of having funnelled off money to private accounts are either dead or not willing to comment.

Smiling tourists standing in front of Checkpoint Charlie
Pieces of the Wall are available to tourists for five eurosImage: DW

However, Heidenreich remains certain of one thing;with the type of speculation occurring when the Wall fell, selling off pieces of the Wall was undoubtedly a lucrative business.

Interest in Japan

Hans Martin Fleischer was a student at that time in West Berlin. The business major took pieces of the Wall with him to Japan while on a research trip.

There the enterprising student was able to sell enough pieces at 10 to 15 dollars a piece to pay for his plane ticket back to Germany.

"In Japan, I met people from a department store who wanted to have a whole segment of nearly 3 tons for an exhibition in Japan," he said. "So I came back to Berlin to find a piece for them."

Fleischer approached one of four companies to whom the East German government had given exclusive rights to sell off the Wall.

After looking through a catalogue, which showcased the Limex company's selection of available Wall pieces, Fleischer selected four large fragments. The total cost: the equivalent of twenty-three thousand euros.

These four pieces were unique, however, because they were some of the first chunks of the wall removed by German border guards which precipitated the end of an era.

Ultimately, Hans Martin Fleischer decided to keep the four pieces in the hope of later selling them at a higher price.

A person counting Deutschmarks.
GDR profits from selling parts of the Berlin Wall have gone missingImage: DW

Demand falls after reunification

However, the period of speculation was short-lived as the market for buying up pieces of the Wall collapsed with the reunification of Germany in October 1990.

Ready access to segments of the Wall deflated demand. "The prices were going down," Fleischer admits. "This has to do with the symbolism of the Wall, in the beginning in November and December in 1989, the Wall stood for a new world order, a peaceful future. Some months later, unfortunately, things came back to normality again."

Today vendors line the streets in Berlin, offering everything from fur-lined hats with Communist stars to GDR passport stamps and postcards. In addition to these souvenirs, there are also chunks of the Wall, real and fake, on sale for about 5 euros a piece.

While former student Hans Martin Fleischer attempts to attract investors to finance a museum built around the four segments of the Wall he still possesses, historians such as Ronny Heidenreich continue to ask what happened to the missing proceeds from the sale of the Wall segments early on.

A long drawn-out court battle in the late 1990's produced 2 million Deutschmarks of the original profits, which were then donated to humanitarian and charitable causes. Without the release of state held documents, however, it is impossible to say what amount of money still remains unaccounted for and who enjoyed the benefit.

Author: Brett Neely/ gmb

Editor: Susan Houlton