Fifty one years ago today, communist officials in East Germany erected the Berlin Wall to stop the exodus of their citizens to capitalist West Berlin.
The 155-km barricade came down 28 years later in 1989, and since then, every self-respecting tourist shop in town sells chunks of spray-painted concrete to anyone seeking a piece of 20th century history.
Today’s price for a chunk of the Wall, as determined during my lunch-time walk to the local tourist shop from my office at the East-West border in Berlin: €4.95 or about $6.10.
You can get a better deal if you buy these cellophane-wrapped mementos from street vendors.
A few years ago, the rather ample supply of German history for sale got Ralf Milke, a geochemist at Berlin’s Free University, wondering whether he could find a way to authenticate pieces of the Wall.
Since then he’s developed a technique that uses X-ray diffraction to confirm whether a supposed chunk of the Berlin Wall is indeed genuine.
Milke did a series of X-ray diffraction experiments with definitely authentic pieces of the wall to get fingerprint spectra of several elements found in the Berlin Wall concrete, such as silicon from the quartz or calcium from the calcite used to make concrete.
He also found that all the fingerprint spectra of Berlin Wall samples have an unusual mark. It’s probably a trace mineral found in the quarry in Rüdersdorf, near Berlin, where the calcite used in the Wall was mined, Milke explains.
Exactly what that trace mineral or metal is remains a mystery, but if the unusual mark doesn’t show up in the x-ray diffraction experiment, then the chunk of concrete isn’t a piece of the Berlin Wall, Milke asserts. “It’s an easy yes or no answer,” he says.
Milke has tried to get a little Berlin Wall authentication business going, but so far only a handful of people have been willing to pay the €5 he charges to verify samples.
That hasn’t stopped him from testing the wares of Berlin Wall vendors around town, he says. Some of the more fraudulent vendors don’t even use concrete when they create Berlin Wall fakes.
Of course if these petty crooks want to evolve into criminal masterminds, they could find a way to use calcite from the Rüdersdorf quarry to mix their own concrete, and thus produce a fake that cannot be identified by Milke’s method.
But pieces of the wall—fake or real—are still pretty inexpensive. So I’d wager that it may be a while yet before it’s financially worthwhile for that level of criminal conspiracy to seep into Berlin’s tourist keepsake industry.
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