Picking up the pieces

Picking up the pieces

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A forensic scientist uses a sharp knife as he carries out a delicate task: helping to resurrect euros that were all but destroyed in Germany’s recent floods.

This expert is one of a 13-member money-analysing team which works at a laboratory of the German federal bank, and specialises in reconstructing damaged banknotes.

. MAINZ, Germany. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

A scientist at the laboratory in Mainz inspects euro notes spoiled by the heavy flooding that swept through eastern and southern Germany in June.

These bills represent a tiny fraction of the money damaged by the flood. Within eight weeks after the deluge, more than 100,000 banknotes worth over three million euros had been sent in to be examined.

. MAINZ, Germany. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Scientists Uwe H. and Frank H. inspect euro notes together at the Deutsche Bundesbank lab. Once the bills are verified, the bank then transfers their value back to the owner's account, and the broken notes are burnt.

The amounts of cash involved can be large. Last year the lab checked more than 840,000 banknotes worth over 32 million euros.

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Slideshow

A forensic scientist opens a plastic pack containing euro banknotes damaged during flooding in Germany.
. MAINZ, Germany. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

A forensic scientist opens a plastic pack containing euro banknotes damaged during flooding in Germany.

Shredded notes are inspected at the Bundesbank lab.
. MAINZ, Germany. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Shredded notes are inspected at the Bundesbank lab.

Scientists Uwe H. and Frank H. look at damaged euro bills.
. MAINZ, Germany. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Scientists Uwe H. and Frank H. look at damaged euro bills.

Broken notes are laid out to be examined.
. MAINZ, Germany. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Broken notes are laid out to be examined.

A scientist carefully separates 50 euro bills.
. MAINZ, Germany. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

A scientist carefully separates 50 euro bills.

A metal security strip pokes out from a clump of euro banknotes.
. MAINZ, Germany. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

A metal security strip pokes out from a clump of euro banknotes.

An expert holds up a reconstructed 50 euro note.
. MAINZ, Germany. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

An expert holds up a reconstructed 50 euro note.

A scientist goes through a wad of euro bills.
. MAINZ, Germany. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

A scientist goes through a wad of euro bills.

A set of 50 euro banknotes that have been reconstructed and counted are sealed in a pack.
. MAINZ, Germany. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

A set of 50 euro banknotes that have been reconstructed and counted are sealed in a pack.

A wad of reconstructed euros lies on a table in front of a sign reading "flood money".
. MAINZ, Germany. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

A wad of reconstructed euros lies on a table in front of a sign reading "flood money".

"Obviously, a lot of Germans do not really trust the safes of their banks and hide money in private places."
Kai Pfaffenbach, Reuters Photographer

When heavy floods hit parts of eastern and southern Germany two months ago, a few forensic scientists sitting hundreds of miles away in their dry office in Mainz knew there would be a deluge coming their way as well. It wouldn’t be that wet, nor that destructive, but it would also be massive.

The 13 men and women are members of the money-analysing team of Germany’s Federal reserve, Deutsche Bundesbank, specialising 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, which would need to be reconstructed.

Once these notes have been verified, the Bundesbank transfers the money back to their owners’ accounts, while the damaged notes are burned. At least 50 percent of a note is needed, but even with less 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 over 3 million euros, were sent to the analysing laboratory in Mainz.

The experts work in a team of two in a small laboratory under a special air-cleaning table to make sure that mould or other fungi does not effect their health. When the damaged and sticky bills arrive, they carefully try to separate them with very thin, sharp knifes and reconstruct them 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 bank notes ranging in value from 5 to 500 euros. Each one needed to be checked under the four-eye principle and the reconstructed money was then sealed and vacuum-packed before being finally destroyed after its value had been refunded.

It’s not just “drowned” money that 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 analysed more than 840,000 notes worth some 32 million euros. They still get notes to check from the old German currency, the 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 bank continues to convert the old currency into euros, experts are quite often needed to assess whether the money is genuine – making some people unexpectedly rich, without even playing the lottery!