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Karl May's Adventures

Christian Werner (als)March 30, 2008

Hundreds of millions of Karl May's books have been sold around the world, making him the most widely read German writer ever. Now, the last estate of a German-speaking writer held in private hands could be sold off.

stunt man surrounded by fire during a karl may performance
May's works have inspired festivals and open-air reanactments around GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Nearly every German has heard of Winnetou or Old Shatterhand -- some of German writer Karl May's most famous figures. For some of the older generation, the names trigger memories of childhood afternoons spent immersed in May's tales.

But for Lothar Schmid, it's all more than just a memory -- it's his life. The 79-year-old senior manager of Karl May Verlag (Karl May Publishing) recently explained at the Leipzig Book Fair how his father founded the publishing company in Radebeul, near the eastern city of Dresden, in 1913.

Writer Karl May
Writer Karl May lived and worked in RadebeulImage: dpa

He also descibed how his father's three sons managed to rescue the legacy of Karl May from the chaos of World War II and the Soviet occupation, and resettle the publishing company in Bamberg, where Karl May's original manuscripts are kept.

"There are only a few of the originals still left, including 'Winnetou IV,' which does not have all of the adventure and action of 'Winnetou I-III,'" Schmid said. "Winnetou IV is more of a symbolic work in which May wrote about Native Americans and white people and generally about the hero Winnetou."

The archive also contains other manuscripts, letters, notes and musical scores: Karl May not only wrote, he also sometimes composed.

Splitting up the estate

Lothar Schmid's two brothers started thinking about selling their shares in the publishing company at the beginning of the 1990s. But at the time, Lothar did everything in his power to keep Karl May's estate from falling into private hands. He invested all of his money and took out a loan of one million deutsche marks (about 500,000 euros or $777,775) to buy out his brothers.

A fan at the Karl May Museum in Radebeul
A fan at the Karl May Museum in RadebeulImage: AP

Now, Schmid wants to rid himself of the financial burden and retire at last. He hopes to sell the estate to the eastern state of Saxony, where May was born -- for 15 million euros.

Schmid said that the estate was worth twice that amount.

"The effective worth can normally be estimated by making comparisons with other authors -- Franz Kafka, for instance, who was an ingenious author, but who was not nearly as widely read as May," Schmid said, adding that such a comparison would show that the price of the May estate should actually be double of what he is asking.

Estimates of worth vary widely

Volker Wahl, director of the Thueringia State Archive, who has also researched May's estate, cannot tolerate those sorts of analogies.

"You cannot make comparisons like that," he said. "Karl May and Franz Kafka are two completely different types of writers. I do not even want to make judgements about the varying literary quality of their work; they are simply not comparable."

"May's Winnetou manuscript is no more comparable to Kafka's 'The Trial" than Goethe's 'Faust' is," he added.

Another Winnetou actor during a presentation of the Karl May play "Unter Geiern"
Another Winnetou actor during a presentation of the Karl May play "Unter Geiern"Image: AP

Wahl is critical of Schmid's price demand, and believes May's estate is not worth more than one million euros -- an estimate supported by an expert report commissioned by the state government of Saxony, which looked at the cultural-historical value.

"Lothar Schmid went to an antiquarian bookseller in Munich, who used completely different criteria to come up with the estimate of 15 million euros," Wahl said. "He was basing it on assumptions of what could be paid for individual books at auctions."

At any rate, it looks unlikely that the state of Saxony could pay the 15 million Schmid is demanding, said State Minister for Science and Culture, Eva Maria Stange. More negotiations are currently underway.

Should they fail, Lothar Schmid might just be forced to sell the works individually at auctions -- which would see May originals scattered across the globe.