What you see: An original four-piece segment of the Berlin Wall, standing almost 12 feet high, almost eight feet deep, and spanning more than 15 feet (including the base slabs). It once belonged to the Parliament of Trees memorial in Berlin. The German phrase stencil-graffitied on the section, spoken by then-German president Richard von Weizsäcker, translates as: “To Unite Means to Learn to Share”. Summers Place Auctions estimates it at £12,000 to £18,000 ($15,600 to $23,400).
The expert: James Rylands, director of Summers Place.
For those who don’t remember the Berlin Wall, let’s talk about it–why did it go up? Why was it notorious? Why was its dismemberment celebrated? The Berlin Wall was one of the most defining things of the 20th century, from a physical and a psychological point of view. It went up in 1961, and a huge amount of East Germans fled to the west by the time it went up. Something like 20 percent of the population fled to the west. It was put up by the German Democratic Republic, which is an oxymoron–it was an Eastern Bloc Soviet state that restricted movement, and personal movement. Barbed wire went up overnight, and over 10 to 15 years, they refined the wall. It became more elaborate and secure. Literally overnight, families were divided.
How many people tried to breach the Berlin Wall? About 5,000 did. We don’t know [exactly] how many died [in their attempt to escape], but it was about 150.
Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall came down? I remember it very well. I’m 60, and I remember it so clearly. Through the Cold War years, we thought we would all die in our beds [from a nuclear bomb dropped by the USSR]. Total obliteration. When the wall came down, it was just huge. Scenes of euphoria. The Berlin Wall was a very obvious physical manifestation of the regime. It went from people attacking it as a symbol of oppression to being attacked by souvenir hunters. It became an instrument of capitalism, people chipping off sections and selling souvenirs. In the news section of our site, we have a story about 16 places around the world where sections of the Berlin Wall ended up–South Korea, the Vatican, Schengan in Luxembourg–it’s worth reading. The Berlin Wall ran for 96 miles, and most of it was turned to rubble and used to build highways.
The fall of the Berlin Wall is one of those ‘where were you when’ moments, but it’s unusual for being a happy moment. Most of those moments–Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy Assassination, 9/11–are tragic. This isn’t. You’re right. It rarely gets concrete.
It must have been a heck of a party when the Berlin Wall came down. Can you imagine the hangovers after that?
I see in the lot notes that the Berlin Wall section in lot 22 stands almost 12 feet tall, but what does it weigh? It’s in four sections, and each bit weighs just under four tons. All together [with the base slabs] it’s about 15 tons, total.
The dimensions note that the section is more than 15 feet wide “overall.” What does that mean here? [In the photo ] you can see a bit that hasn’t been painted–
Like a stand? Yes. The same thing goes out on the other side. Front to back.
So the wall section sits on slabs? Yes. It’s not an easy thing to hop over, especially considering it [the vertical surface] would have been smooth, and it had things [deterrents] on the top as well. To get over that was quite a feat.
And this was once part of the Parliament of Trees monument in Berlin, but it was deaccessed? When? Artist Ben Wagin painted on it in 1990, when it became part of the Parliament of Trees. They [the stewards of the monument] built out at that stage and sold it or disposed of it [to reshape the monument]. The consigner acquired it literally after they sold it [later in 1990].
So the section was part of the Parliament of Trees very briefly, and then it was released? I think it was. With the Parliament of Trees, parts were moved because they were putting up other buildings on it [the site].
How did Wagin choose the von Weizsäcker quote–“To Unite Means to Learn to Share”–to stencil on this segment of the wall? Von Weizsäcker was then president of Germany, commenting on gathering and sharing. West Germany was one of the few countries that could afford to make that happen, to underwrite the whole of East Germany. It was only 45 years since World War II, and then it underwrote a whole new country.
Do you know how many other pieces of the Berlin Wall have gone to auction? I’ve been doing sales for 30 years. I started four years before the wall came down. This is the first time I’ve seen or been aware of a large section going up for sale.
How did you set the estimate? That was the most difficult thing of all. Most things in an auction have an intrinsic value. With something like this, I’m selling chunks of concrete. What price do you put on the provenance and the history? I think it’s a modest estimate. If it [and its consecutive sister lot] fetch £100,000, I’d be pleased and not surprised.
Were the two lots of Berlin Wall segments consigned by the same person? Yes.
What is the segment with the Von Weizsäcker quote on it like in person? It’s powerful. It’s got a real wow factor. We’ve got seven acres on the Summers Place grounds. We only managed to stand one section up. [They had crane issues.] A point I should make is it’s equally at home outside as inside. In a modern building, a corporate building, a museum with a glass atrium, it will look stunning. It really will. Brutalism and urban street art–it combines the two.
How will you sell the Berlin Wall segment on the day? I take it you won’t do the auction outdoors in England in March… Bear in mind that a lot of what we sell is very big. In the sale room, each lot will go up on a TV screen.
Who do you think is going to buy this? Who is the audience? In a way, that’s what makes it a rich man’s lot. It’s going to be an institution or someone with a sufficient indoor-outdoor space. And I don’t preclude selling this to the Russians. We sell quite a lot to Russians. I just pray, and this is me taking off my auctioneer hat here, I hope it ends up in a public institution.
What about an ex-East German? People who were young when it came down… Berlin is a rich city now. What a wonderful thing, to buy it back.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Summers Place Auctions.
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