City’s Suit for Golden Chain From Grave Fails in Berlin

A Berlin court rejected a suit by the city of Wismar seeking the handover of a 400-year-old gilded chain unearthed in 1965 from an East German graveyard, where it lay hidden from the Soviet authorities.

Borghild Niemann, now a retired librarian, crept into the graveyard almost 50 years ago with her father 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, and not to the city of Wismar which is claiming 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. Judge Juergen Beier ruled that the statute of limitations renders the city’s suit invalid at Berlin’s regional court today.

“I am very happy,” Niemann said at court after the decision. “I still think it is mad that I had to go to court.”

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 ($13,230) if sold commercially.

Shooting Parrots

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 Kaufmanns-Compagnie Wismar guild is known to have existed at least as early as 1379. It survived until 1945, when the Soviet military authorities ordered its dissolution and expropriation.

“This is a success for all German families who managed to salvage property from eastern Germany,” Bischof said. “Otherwise they could have been subject to lawsuits from East German local authorities upholding Soviet-era 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 Robert Haeussler across the border to dig up the chain, she said. 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.”

Border Crossing

From Wismar, they took the train back across the border to western Germany with their smuggled booty, Niemann said. She wore the chain around her neck, under a jacket, and said she was “terrified.” Her father had the pendant on his keyring in his pocket. They were not searched by East German border guards.

The parrot and chain remained in a safe in the family home until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, after which 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. 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 be worn on festive occasions, remain in Wismar forever and 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.

Niemann is determined that the chain should belong to Wismar’s business community and not the city authorities.

“The chain belongs to the city of Wismar, but not on the mayor’s chest,” she said. “It’s important to me that alongside the city council, we keep the traditions of a civil society.”

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