Ceausescu's loot for sale on the internet

Adam LeBor reports on a kitsch spectacular that makes Imelda Marcos seem an icon of good taste

IT IS a trip back in time to an era when communist dictators ruled half of Europe, piling up luxury goods in a distinctly unsocialist manner while their compatriots queued for hours to buy everyday necessities.

The most rapacious of all were Nicolae Ceausescu and his avaricious wife Elena, the king and queen of Balkan bad taste. Now anyone with a hankering for a Ceausescu-style brown polyester suit or a pair of shiny white shoes, not to mention a sports car or luxury yacht, can kit themselves out in true 1970s dictator's fashion. Nine years after the "genius of the Carpathians" - as Nicolae Ceausescu called himself - and his wife were killed in a hail of bullets on Christmas Day 1989, the couple's piles of possessions are to be auctioned off over the internet.

The web site (www.ceausescu. ines.rom) is a uniquely Communist blend of ostentation and kitsch. Its pages of cars, boats, clothing and residences offer an index of the lifestyle of a ruling couple who for decades held a nation in the grip of fear. Like almost every communist dictatorship, they denounced capitalism while grabbing as many of its fruits as they could for themselves.

The site offers thumbnail pictures of different parts of the couple's warehouse-sized clothing collection. Racks of fur coats jostle for space with rows of women's suits in fetching shades of pink, yellow and turquoise. Nicolae's shoe collection would have put Imelda Marcos to shame, with pride of place going to a pair of white leather brogues perfect for a New York pimp.

The Ceausescus' possessions were taken over by the Romanian government, and are administered by the State Protocol Administration (SPA). They have been kept in government warehouses since the 1989 revolution, the bloodiest of all the upheavals that brought down the Soviet bloc regimes.

"We are being deluged by e-mails from people who want to bid for the goods. Some are from specialist collectors, but lots of people just want to have something that was owned by the Ceausescus," said Mihai Nica, of the SPA in Bucharest.

The web site offers potential buyers the chance to preview the goods at their leisure - a full tour takes more than an hour. The SPA is in the process of choosing an auction house, and the Ceausescu collection should go on sale early next year, with the proceeds going into the state budget. Romanian officialdom still seems to have a hazy grasp of capitalism, however: civil servants are hoping that the sale will raise at least $1m (pounds 600,000), but judging by the vast array of goods to be auctioned off, that seems an underestimate. Compared with other dictators, such as the Shah of Iran, the Ceausescus were comparatively minor sybarites. But in a communist dictatorship where the average Romanian's highest ambition was to own a Lada, the Ceausescus lived in a different galaxy.

The cars up for auction include a 1975 Buick Elektra donated by Richard Nixon, which is just one embarrassing reminder of how the West used to fete the dictator for his independent foreign policy and occasional unwillingness to follow Moscow's orders, a Mercedes 350SL made especially for their daughter Zoe, and a less roadworthy Dacia 1100, the first home-produced Romanian car.

There are two luxury houseboats, Snagov I and II, several speedboats and a warehouseful of household objects in dubious taste, such as racks of vases, wooden bowls, lamps and elephants carved from ivory. Many appear to be gifts from foreign leaders, such as a photograph flanked by two tusks. Perhaps somewhere in the collection are the items said to have gone missing after the Ceausescus stayed at Buckingham Palace during their state visit to Britain in 1978.

Behind the piles of kitsch lies a serious point, say Romanian officials. The goods have been put on display to try to demolish the air of mystery that still surrounds the Ceausescu era. "We are posting this on the internet because everything was so strange and secret under Ceausescu," said Mr Nica. "Now we are saying 'let's tell everyone what's going on'. We must move forward and demystify what happened before."

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