Chain Hidden in Grave May Be Subject to Soviet Law

Robert Haeussler and Borghild Niemann
Robert Haeussler and his daughter Borghild Niemann in 2006. Together, they unearthed the 400-year-old "parrot chain" guild insignia from an East German graveyard in 1965 and smuggled it back into West Germany. Source: Borghild Niemann via Bloomberg

A Berlin court warned a retired librarian that she may be forced to hand over a 400-year-old gilded chain she unearthed in 1965 from an East German graveyard, where it lay hidden from the Soviet authorities.

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. 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.

“You realize you may lose this case,” judge Juergen Beier told Niemann at a court hearing in Berlin today. “It would be better if you reached a settlement.” Beier said he will issue his decision in February or March.

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, according to Niemann’s lawyer, Ulf Bischof of Bischof & Paetow Rechtsanwaelte in Berlin. He estimated it would fetch more than 10,000 euros ($13,250) if sold commercially.

Shooting Contest

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. The membership initially comprised Wismar brewers whose beer was exported to England, Holland and France. It 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.

As an 18-year-old, Niemann accompanied her father across the border to dig up the chain, she said over coffee in the court cafeteria. Her Wismar-based grandmother had died, and her father thought it could be the last opportunity to retrieve the gilded parrot because trips to East Germany by West Germans required an invitation from a family member, she said.

Digging at Dusk

They worked by nightfall, in fear of being caught by the East German authorities.

“I kept watch and my father dug with a pitchfork,” Niemann said. “He pulled up the tin. The parrot chain was black, like a lump of earth, wrapped in a moldy cloth. We disappeared very fast and took it back to my late grandmother’s house to clean it.”

From Wismar, they took the train back across the border to western Germany.

“I had the chain round my neck under my woolen jacket,” Niemann said. “My father had the parrot pendant on his keyring in his pocket. We were used to crossing the border and knew that people were often asked to accompany the guards and were then searched. Luckily it didn’t happen this time.

“I was terrified,” Niemann said. “Anyone who had seen the chain would know instantly it wasn’t fashion jewelry. I felt huge relief after we crossed the border.”

The parrot and chain remained in a safe in the family home until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. 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.

Business Association

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.

Frank Junge, a spokesman for the city government of Wismar, said in an e-mail that the city saw no alternative to legal action to force Niemann to hand over the chain, which it wants to display in a local museum.

“They could have picked up the phone before taking me to court,” said Niemann. “I want to have the right to decide how to dispose of it. This is a chain that should be worn at ceremonies and has a significance -- it represents a long tradition of commerce, and is not purely a museum exhibit.”

Ines Raum, the current head of the Wismarer Wirtschaftsgemeinschaft, said the court case is 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.”

Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham on history and Richard Vines on food.

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