A Berlin court will tomorrow examine who is the rightful owner of a 400-year-old gilded chain that lay buried in an East German graveyard to conceal it from Soviet authorities and was dug up by stealth 20 years later.
Borghild Niemann, together with her father Robert Haeussler, crept into the graveyard at dusk to recover the hidden chain and smuggled it back into West Germany in 1965. She says the treasure should belong to a business association in the Baltic port of Wismar to which her father later donated it.
The city government of Wismar filed suit against her, arguing that under Soviet military law the chain should have been handed in to the occupiers and demanding it be transferred to public ownership, court documents show.
“This is politically surprising,” said Ulf Bischof of Bischof & Paetow Rechtsanwaelte in Berlin, the lawyer representing Niemann at tomorrow’s hearing at the Berlin regional court. “Our client is naturally annoyed that she has been invited to appear in court, as though she and her late father had stolen the chain from the city -- which, from a legal perspective, never had anything to do with it.”
The gold-plated silver chain, called the Papagoyenkette because of its parrot pendant, was the insignia of a merchants’ guild founded in the Middle Ages in the Hanseatic League port of Wismar. Its value is primarily symbolic and historic, Bischof said, although he estimated it would fetch more than 10,000 euros ($13,250) if sold commercially.
Crafted by a local goldsmith in the early 17th century, the chain was awarded to the winner of a shooting competition where the targets were wooden parrots. The victor’s privileges also included an opulent house in Wismar and the right to brew beer for a year.
The Kaufmanns-Compagnie Wismar guild is known to have existed at least as early as 1379. Its traditions date back to a time when citizens were responsible for defending their city, and skills such as shooting could be a question of survival.
The membership initially comprised Wismar brewers whose beer was exported to England, Holland and France. In the 17th century, the focus of its membership switched to merchants, and from 1736, all the Baltic port’s merchants were obliged to join.
The Kaufmanns-Compagnie survived until 1945, when the Soviet military authorities ordered its dissolution and expropriation. The parrot chain was saved from confiscation by a guild member who buried it in his family grave, sealed in a tin, in 1945, according to court documents obtained by Bloomberg News.
Most guild members, having served in World War II, escaped Soviet rule by fleeing to West Germany. The chain remained buried until 1965. With the permission of the widow of the guild member who had hidden it, Haeussler made a clandestine trip across the border with his then 18-year-old daughter to dig up the chain, the court documents show. They worked by nightfall, in fear of being caught by the East German authorities.
Niemann declined to be interviewed before the Jan. 4 court hearing. In an interview in the Ostsee-Zeitung regional newspaper in 2008, she recalled driving back across into West Germany with the chain under her cardigan while her father carried the parrot on his keyring, stuffed in his pocket, out of view of the border guards.
“Our client and her father acted without any desire for personal gain and at great personal risk to protect the Papagoyenkette and maintain the traditions of the merchants’ guild of Wismar,” Bischof said. Attempts by the city of Wismar to paint Niemann and her father as grave-robbers are “dishonorable,” he said.
“There have been a lot of differing opinions over a long period of time about whom this chain belongs to,” said Frank Junge, a spokesman for the Wismar city government. Junge said the federal government office responsible for unresolved property issues determined in 2009 that it should be in the ownership of the city.
“Ms. Niemann refused to give us our property back,” Junge said. “Therefore we had no choice but to take the legal route. For the Hanseatic city of Wismar, the Papagoyenkette is a piece of city history. It should be accessible to the wider public in our city museum.”
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Haeussler moved back to Wismar. He tried to re-establish the merchants’ guild and failed because of a shortage of surviving members. Haeussler continued to dedicate his life to Wismar and in 2000 -- at the age of 88 - - he was elected to the city council.
In 2008, Haeussler donated the Papagoyenkette to the Wismarer Wirtschaftsgemeinschaft e.V., a local business association, on condition that it should be worn on festive occasions, should remain in Wismar forever and would revert to the city museum if the association is ever dissolved.
When the city raised doubts about the legality of Haeussler’s grave-digging operation, the Wismarer Wirtschaftsgemeinschaft reversed the donation, handing the chain back to his daughter after Haeussler’s death.
It’s a decision that Ines Raum, the current head of the association, finds regrettable.
“It was my personal wish at the time that we loan it to the city museum and use it for certain occasions,” Raum said by telephone. “That would have been the best solution.”
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