The Wall for sale

From GDR auctions to spray-painted original souvenir to total fakes, the past – and present – of selling off the Berliner Mauer is a curious business indeed.

Image for The Wall for sale
Photo by Anna Agliardi

From GDR auctions to spray-painted original souvenir to total fakes, the past – and present – of selling off the Berliner Mauer is a curious business indeed.

During the winter of 1989, the sound of chisels relentlessly clanging on concrete resonated throughout Berlin as thousands lined up to chip slowly away at the 3.6m wall that had divided their city for 28 years. Just weeks before, this act of defiance would have been unthinkable. Equally unthinkable would have been the business that arose out of the fall of the Wall, as the ultimate anti-capitalist symbol became a capitalist commodity garnering the attention of prospective buyers all over the world and spawning a market that has continued well into the present day.

Twenty-five years later demand is still high. Though there’s no shortage of Wall for sale across the city, its finite nature has rendered it as something of a collector’s item. Smaller pieces, encased in Plexiglas with an embossed certificate of authenticity, attract Ostalgic souvenir hunters across the world, showcased in floor-to-ceiling displays dominating Berlin’s museums and tourist traps.

The government that constructed the Wall was now earning money from it. In 1990, 70 full segments were auctioned for up to one million euros in total, allegedly to benefit East German hospitals.

“We sell around 25 of these small pieces a week at €3.95 a piece,” says the frazzled clerk at the Berlin Wall Memorial visitor centre as he arranges leaflets containing coin-sized chunks of Wall in a rotating display holder. “I don’t understand it, but visitors, they want a trophy. They want their own piece of the Iron Curtain.”

Meanwhile, larger chunks attract global attention online despite astronomical price tags, and private collectors and corporations bid to nab an entire concrete slab or ‘element’ for themselves – preferably with the original graffiti still intact. On his website and Ebay, professional Wall seller Jens Wordelmann offers pieces for €5 (for a 2x3cm fragment) to €25,000 (for a set of five complete elements painted by artist Ben Wagin).

“It’s a full-time job. I sold three full elements last week to corporate clients – two to Denmark, one to Cologne. Right now they reach about €7000 each.” He considers the condition of each piece he purchases carefully, looking out for distinctive graffiti and avoiding the damaged or broken segments which he claims are increasingly being peddled.

“It’s an art business,” says Wordelmann. “I value pieces by weight and quality. I paid €6000 for only 180kg from a nice Spanish couple who met and collected a lot of the Wall when it came down. The colours and original paintwork were worth it.”

Wall-peckers and Stasi opportunists

Image for The Wall for sale
Wall-peckers getting a piece of the business, 1989.

Today’s Mauer market is a continuation of a series of events that began the day of the Wall’s demolition. “The rush for pieces started right at the beginning, on the evening of November 9, when news outlets all over the world broadcast the fall of the Wall,” says Ronny Heidenreich, former historian with the Berlin Wall Memorial museum and contributor to the book Where in the World is the Berlin Wall?. “People outside of Germany saw it on TV and were immediately interested in getting a piece.”

It didn’t take long for enterprising opportunists to realise that the media storm and subsequent rush of visitors could equal major paydirt. Within days, makeshift stalls were set up along the Wall perimeter. East German children cast off their socialist teachings with remarkable ease and sold pieces to the throngs of wide-eyed tourists, while others took the less labour-intensive route and simply rented out chisels so would-be “wall-peckers” could nab a piece themselves.

One man decided early on to take his spoils further afield. In 1989, Hans Martin Fleischer was a student in West Berlin. When the borders were opened, he followed the crowds to Potsdamer Platz.

“I chipped about 15kg of concrete off the Wall,” he explains. “Soon after, I went to Japan for my studies, and I brought the pieces over in my luggage. In Japan it was seen as a symbol of global peace, and I quickly made money from selling my pieces – enough to pay for my flight back to Berlin!”

It wasn’t long before those in power began to take notice. In a spectacular and shameless conversion to capitalistic logic, the East German government, still yet to be dissolved, claimed official ownership of the structure and arrested a few of the “wall-peckers” before appropriating East Berlin construction company Limex-Bau to take charge of its dismantling and sale. It wasn’t a popular move.

“Heavy criticism came from the people in both the East and West,” says Heidenreich. “The GDR government that constructed the Wall was now earning money from it. From a moral point of view, this was highly questionable behaviour.”

The public was assured by the government that all proceeds from Wall sales would be funnelled into humanitarian purposes, like children’s homes and health care. Yet, with escalating news reports of stolen money and GDR corruption, confusion was heightened among Berlin residents who just wanted to see the Wall destroyed. Though the number of elements that were stolen remains disputed, the fact that slabs meant for demolition were ending up in the hands of people across the world became common knowledge – one extreme example being an auction in Monaco held on June 23, 1990, with 70 full segments sold to international artists and private buyers, earning a total of up to DM2.2 million (about one million euros), allegedly to benefit East German hospitals.

“We know that Limex-Bau earned something in the region of DM900,000 (€450,000) in April 1990,” says Heidenreich. “There was an arrangement put in place to split the profits between other organisations and the artists who painted the Wall, but there were quarrels about the money. Only a small amount of the original sum was finally distributed to East German social funds.”

Heidenreich is unwilling to theorise about what happened to the rest of the money, but Fleischer has his own opinions regarding the mystery.

“Those Limex people were definitely Stasi,” he asserts. “You would not have found any East German foreign trade company without Stasi people. These people could travel, they had the chance to do business with foreign currency, and they had no scruples. Someone within this group was probably responsible for the disappearance of the money.”

Fleischer dealt with Limex-Bau first-hand. While selling his Wall samples in Japan, he was approached by the representative of a department store art expo who was interested in buying four full segments. Through enquiries, Fleischer discovered four sections taken from Potsdamer Platz, some of the very first parts to be removed on November 11, 1989. The only way he could get hold of them was through Limex-Bau.

“They weren’t very professional,” he laughs. “At the beginning they were very restrictive. Their catalogue wasn’t public and they were only selling to major organisations, not private people. They originally offered the pieces to me for DM385,000 (about €190,000), which was unreasonably high.” After German reunification in late 1990, as Wall hype diminished and Limex-Bau was on the precipice of dissolving, he eventually managed to secure a bargain. “Under DM50,000 for all four. It was a good deal.”

The souvenir sellers

Image for The Wall for sale

The initial selling frenzy dissipated almost as quickly as it began. The German public was anxious to see the Wall removed completely, and certainly not exploited for personal gain. But though large-scale interest slowed down, international tourists never stopped clamouring for their own little piece of the Mauer – authenticity be damned.

Today, nestled among the gaudy Russian dolls and Soviet-style military fur hats sold by street vendors around Checkpoint Charlie, you’ll find dubious little plastic baggies of concrete. “Only 40 euro!” grins the seller as he tantalisingly offers the fist-sized bag of dark grey rubble with flaky paint. It’s hard to tell whether clueless tourists get sucked in by the broken sales pitch – you don’t need to be an expert to certify that these chunks are fakes. But what about the infinitely more sophisticated – and affordable – selections found in Mitte tourist shops and respectable museums across the city?

“See, those pieces on the postcards, they can’t be real,” whispers a souvenir shop owner as he points at the overflowing racks. “It’s almost impossible to chip a piece of original Wall so small without shattering it. But they’re a nice souvenir. Everything else you see is authentic. You can tell just by looking at the concrete.”

It turns out that nearly all of the colourful concrete slivers embedded in postcards, fridge magnets, keyrings and ready-to-mount displays can be traced back to one wholesaler: Volker Pawlowski.

The mental image of a Wall dealer earnestly spray-painting full segments of concrete in his workshop before chipping them into ready-to- sell pieces borders on the absurd, but that’s exactly what Volker Pawlowski, supplier of Wall souvenirs to 90 percent of Berlin’s gift shops, does. Pawlowski says he acquired 300 metres of Wall through a recycling company in 1991 and has asserted that each and every one of his pieces is authentic, though he admits to painting them himself: the pieces he bought were from the graffiti-free eastern wall, and discerning customers wanted more than a lump of grey concrete.

For the past few years Pawlowski has been reluctant to talk to the media, and rejected an interview request with Exberliner out of hand. Wordelmann, his friend and business partner, explains that Pawlowski was fed up of the press hinting that his pieces weren’t all true originals.

“They always question the authenticity of our pieces. But I know my business, and I know the Wall. I can tell you which bits were produced in the GDR and which parts were produced in Russia. There is a lot of original Wall left. Why would we bother to sell fakes?”

Spotting the fakes

Image for The Wall for sale
Wall bubbles, Checkpoint Charlie gift shop, €8.15. Photo by Anna Agliardi

So how legitimate was that Wall souvenir you just bought? Hidden within the criss-crossing halls of the Free University, mineralogist Dr. Ralf Milke claims he can tell you for sure.

They always question the authenticity of our pieces. But I know my business, and I know the Wall. Why would we bother to sell fakes?

The majority of Milke’s time is taken up with lectures and routine mineral analyses, but back in October 2010, following the request of curious journalists, he discovered that he could authenticate Wall pieces via x-ray fingerprinting the concrete that made the fourth generation of the Wall (built between 1975-1989) – the only ‘wall’ being sold today. Alongside the quartz and calcite that makes up the concrete, authentic Berlin Wall contains traces of an as-yet-undefined mineral that probably originated in the Rudersdorf quarry where the calcite used in the Wall was mined. This shows up as a small peak on a graph – if that peak doesn’t appear during analysis, the piece is a certified fake. Milke now uses this technique on Wall samples sent to him from across the world, but claims a few simple visual tests will do the trick nearly as well.

“There are very apparent clues. See this one here? The colour of it is too grey. I can almost tell you with certainty now that this piece wouldn’t test authentic.” According to Milke, real pieces have a rough surface, an off-white colour, chunks of black quartz throughout the concrete and, crucially, a faint grey weathering line just under the painted exterior, which indicates that the concrete has been outside for a long period of time.

“The majority of samples we test turn out to be real, but some of it is handmade stuff, often sold by street vendors,” he says. “We’ve even identified concrete that was never outside. It was freshly made!”

He picks up a Pawlowski bookmark and points to the yellow fragment inside. “This one, though, it was sold at an official outlet. Yet, it turned out to be a fake.” Which is not say Pawlowski’s a sham: almost all of his other pieces appeared and tested as authentic (see sidebar). Meanwhile, a piece purchased at the Checkpoint Charlie Wall Museum gift shop (from the private collection of famous dissident and founder of the museum Rainer Hildebrandt) also tested fake. Both Pawlowski and current Wall Museum director Alexandra Hildebrandt say they use subcontractors to turn the minipieces into postcard, bookmark and transparent plastic bubble souvenirs. This might explain the presence of duds in the mix.

Time to invest?

Image for The Wall for sale

With counterfeits making up only a small minority of the myriad pieces on offer, we seem to be hitting the peak time for Mauer-seekers looking for a valuable investment. “The price for a section is going up and up,” says Wordelmann. “Three years ago I paid around €3000 in cash for a segment; now you have to pay at least €7000, plus taxes. I think in five years you’ll have to pay as much as €10,000 for one with no graffiti.”

As demand and profit margins continue to rise, the small community of Wall sellers are also watching their warehouses slowly empty – though Pawlowski stated in a 2009 interview that he still has enough to keep him in business for decades.

“I think in five or 10 years we won’t have any more pieces,” worries Wordelmann. “The Berlin Wall is in the USA, Spain, France, the UK, but not in Germany! All that we have left is the East Side Gallery. The Wall is gone. We sold it all off.” As traders scramble to prolong the viability of their businesses, will Milke start spotting a larger number of fakes? And how many of the tourists snapping up pocket-sized pieces as a fond reminder of their weekend breaks will actually care?

For Hans-Martin Fleischer’s part, he ended up holding onto his four segments and now stores them in an undisclosed location in Berlin. He has since built a full-scale replica of one of these pieces, which he carts around Europe as part of his historical photography project “Walls In Motion”.

“At the end of the day, by selling the Wall you’re making money out of a peaceful idea,” says Fleischer. “But I decided I didn’t want to make a business out of doing that at all. There are far more important things to do with the Wall.

Real or fake?

We purchased a selection of Wall pieces from the Wall Memorial visitor centre on Bernauer Straße, the Checkpoint Charlie museum, the East Side Gallery souvenir shop and a run-of-the-mill souvenir stand on Friedrichstraße – eight in total – and brought them to mineralogist and Wall expert Ralf Milke for x-ray testing. Out of the two samples purchased at the Checkpoint Charlie museum shop (from director Alexandra Hildebrandt’s personal collection), we spotted one that looked fake, and ended up testing fake. Of the two from the East Side Gallery souvenir shop, both sourced from the personal collection of shop owner Gerd Glanz, one also tested fake. The two from the Wall Memorial visitor centre – one from the personal collection of an elderly small-time dealer named Herr Ascherl, and one from a bubble fold-out pamphlet sourced from wholesaler Volker Pawlowski, both tested real. One piece bought from a Friedrichstraße souvenir shop, also sourced from Pawlowski, tested real. Yet the piece in a bubble postcard from that same shop and source tested fake.

How can you be sure the Wall souvenir you’re buying is genuine? As a matter of fact, we deliberately singled out a few pieces that looked dubious, using Milke’s four visual criteria (see article). An overwhelming majority of the pieces on sale at the different locations looked real – and probably are. Just trust your eyes!

Originally published in issue #132, November 2014.