By Andreas Tzortzis

International Herald Tribune

A premiere real estate address – once the location of one of pre- war Berlin’s top department stores, later the home of a legendary night club in the reunited German capital – is up for sale.
Last week, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany listed the 22,000-square-meter, or 5.4-acre, property on Leipziger Platz that belongs to the Wertheim family. It is the largest piece of undeveloped property remaining in the city center, and is expected to be worth millions of dollars.
Fabian Hüther, managing director of CB Richard Ellis in Berlin, was uneasy about quoting a price, saying only that the land would sell into the “three-digit millions.”
A similar parcel of two hectares, or five acres, on Potsdamer Platz – which formerly belonged to the Wertheims – was sold for $150 million in 2000 by KarstadtQuelle, the country’s largest department-store operator.
“The location is surely one of the most well-known in Berlin,” Hüther said. “It’s on a vital east-west street axis. It’s in an area that’s frequented by a lot of people, and one of the most attractive properties in that area.”
Also, Hüther said, there are no limits on development. “I can’t imagine such an opportunity will present itself again,” he said.
But the Berlin commercial market has been anything but welcoming for investors recently. The roller-coaster years that followed the dot-com bust have passed, but a Deutsche Bank analyst, Tobias Just, said there is an oversupply. “It’s not yet a market for core investors, if you don’t have a property you can rent to the Treasury or Chancellery, for example,” Just said.
The listing by CB Richard Ellis marks the end of a successful court battle that reflected the fractured history of Germany’s capital.
“To say it was a twisted saga is greatly underestimated,” said Gary Osen, a lawyer based in New Jersey. For four years, Osen has represented the Wertheim descendants in their quest to regain the vast holdings seized by the Nazi dictatorship in the 1930s.
The Jewish family had one of the most successful department store businesses in early 20th-century Germany, the crown jewel of which was the upscale store on Leipzigerstrasse.
The Nazis forced Georg Wertheim, then the head of the company’s board, to leave the business and used its choice property for some of their most notorious buildings, including the Reich’s Chancellery and Hitler’s bunker. After Allied bombers laid waste to the site in 1944, the property entered a state of limbo.
“In the Cold War, it was the death strip, vacant lots, the buffer zone on the other side of the Wall,” Osen said. “It was possibly the most worthless property around.”
During the 1990s, the store’s former vaults delighted ravers from all over the world as the home of Tresor, the city’s legendary techno club.
In 1992 the Jewish claims conference, the group that helps distribute Nazi reparations, started a legal battle to get the former Wertheim properties in Berlin, including the Leipzigerstrasse address, back into the hands of the Wertheim heirs. The legal battle evolved into a political one in which the government briefly questioned the conference’s claims and, in 2002, President George W. Bush and Gerhard Schröder, then chancellor of Germany, discussed the issue, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The German restitution authority ruled in the Wertheims’ favor, and the government eventually withdrew its appeals. In October 2005, the German Administrative Court in Leipzig finally ruled in favor of the Wertheims and forced KarstadtQuelle, which had bought out Wertheim, to relinquish its claims on the Leipzigerstrasse property.
“I think for most of the family, pursuing this for the last umpteen years was more a matter of principle,” Osen said. The claims conference will receive 20 percent of the sale proceeds, Osen said, with the family sharing the remainder.