Photographers' Blog

Euro in pieces

August 1, 2013

Mainz, Germany

By Kai Pfaffenbach

When heavy floods hit parts of eastern and southern Germany two months ago, a few forensic scientists sitting hundreds of miles away in a dry place at their office in Mainz (south-western Germany) knew there would be a flood coming their way as well. Not that wet, not that destructive but also massive. The 13 men and women are members of the money analyzing team of Germany’s Federal reserve, Deutsche Bundesbank, specializing in reconstructing damaged or destroyed bank notes.

Experience from previous floods told them there would be thousands of notes found in private basements, flooded bank safes or cash machines. Those notes need to be reconstructed and, once they have been verified, the Bundesbank transfers the money back to its owners’ account, while the damaged notes will be burned.

At least 50% of a note is needed but even with less left the experts are able to reconstruct the bills. Obviously, a lot of Germans do not really trust the safes of their banks and hide money in private places – buried in their gardens, underneath wine shelves or (very innovative) in their mattresses. Within eight weeks of the flood more than 100,000 notes, worth more than 3 million euros, were sent to the analyzing laboratory in Mainz.

The experts work in a team of two in a small laboratory under a special air cleaning table to make sure mold or other fungi does not effect the health of the experts. When the damaged and sticky notes arrive they carefully try to separate the notes with very thin, sharp knifes and reconstruct note by note.

In the special cases I was allowed to observe, the scientists Frank H. and Uwe H. were looking into several thousand euros sent in by a private citizen from Bavaria who had a nest egg in her basement. It took hours to go through several hundred notes ranging in value from 5 to 500 euros. Each note needed to be checked under the four-eye principle and the reconstructed money would be sealed and vacuum-packed before it is finally destroyed after its value has been refunded.

But not only “drowned” money can be “rescued”, the “money CSI team” also check partially burned notes or money which has been damaged by mice or rats. I could not believe the stories they told me about where people find money and what happened to it after it was forgotten. The real facts and figures hit me hard. In 2012 the experts analyzed more than 840,000 notes worth some 32 million euros. They still get notes to check from the old German currency, D-Mark which is often found by heirs in mattresses or even the chimney of a fireplace. The Bundesbank is actually still “missing” more than 30 billion D-Mark. As the Bundesbank still converts the old currency into euros the experts are quite often needed to proof the genuineness of the money – making some people, without them even playing the lottery, unexpectedly rich!

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