Currency Exchange

Return of the deutsche mark, Germany's hidden treasure

Immer noch werden D-Mark in Euro getauscht
The deutsche mark had great face value. Source: DPA

With stubborn regularity, Germany’s stability-loving citizens are quoted complaining about the euro and how they want their old deutsche mark back. Unbeknownst to many of these fans, they’ve still got it.

Nearly 16 years since the euro was introduced, vast hoards of deutsche marks still haven’t been exchanged. As of last month, a total of 12.64 billion deutsche marks (around €6.46 billion) remained in circulation, according to the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank. Of this amount, around 5.9 billion marks were in bills and 6.7 billion marks in coins.

Between 100 and 150 million deutsche marks are returned to Germany’s Bundesbank every year, said Carl-Ludwig Thiele, the central bank’s director in charge of payments. The cash may suddenly resurface in estate sales or during home renovations, frequently retrieved from disused furniture, dusty tomes or other hiding places. Stories abound, from grandmas sewing 1000-mark bills into the curtains to banknotes fluttering out of stripped wallpaper. In the German state of Brandenburg, a chest of drawers dismantled for firewood in 2008 revealed a secret compartment with 140,000 deutsche marks inside.

Some of the unexchanged currency is kept abroad, especially in countries that have experienced high inflation, Mr. Thiele said. “The deutsche mark was especially sought after in eastern and southeastern Europe as a means of preserving value,” he said. During Romania’s runaway inflation of the early 1990s, the mark acted as a de-facto shadow currency as the value of the Romanian leu crumbled. Such circumstances enhanced the reputation of the German currency as a safe haven, and of the Bundesbankers as Währungshüter (defenders of the currency).

The Bundesbank says it will continue to exchange deutsche marks indefinitely and without limits on the amount. “We want to show that we’re reliable,” the central banker added. Damaged bills will be exchanged if at least half of the banknote is intact. In one notable case last year, a woman mistakenly tossed 700 deutsche marks into the fireplace, retrieved the singed bills and handed them in at the Bundesbank, where the leftovers were readily accepted and exchanged.

The Bundesbank will continue to exchange deutsche marks indefinitely and without limits on the amount.

But Germany is an exception. In other euro-zone countries, it’s no longer possible to switch the previous local currency for euros. Deadlines for exchanging francs in France, lire in Italy, or markka in Finland have all expired – a windfall for the government. The money that wasn’t exchanged in time was then marked as profit on the central bank’s books, and flowed into state coffers.

Consumers should keep a sharp lookout for specimens from Germany’s early post-war years after the currency reform of 1948, when the deutsche mark was introduced to replace the worthless Reichsmark. These are now collector’s items, especially in mint condition. Five-mark commemorative coins from the 1950s are a particularly valuable find, the German banking association BDB said.

Though no longer a familiar sight, the good old “D-Mark” (pronounced “day-mark” in German) hasn’t quite disappeared from daily life. A smattering of businesses still accept yesterday’s money for special occasions. However, as the bulk of deutsche marks vanished in the euro zone’s 2002 currency changeover (exchange rate: 1.95583 marks per euro), most people will have to dig deep into their pockets to find any.

Jeremy Gray is an editor for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: j.gray@handelsblatt.com

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