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Aladdin's Cave offers cheap loans

Ernst Pfenninger shows off the gold in the vaults of the pawnshop. ZKB

Employees of Switzerland's third largest bank can be found in rather unusual places doing rather unusual things - like examining a beat-up ghetto blaster.

This content was published on August 12, 2002 - 10:43

The Zurich Cantonal Bank pawnbroker shop is home to everything from Samurai swords to Swatch watches to silk carpets.

The shop, tucked away in a suburb a few blocks from the wealth and glamour of Zurich's celebrated Bahnhofstrasse, is a small treasure chest that one could easily miss.

It attracts all kinds of people who have one thing in common - the need for short- term liquidity. Students pawn their bicycles; wealthier clients drop off their upmarket sports cars.

"The nicest car we have is an Aston Martin DB 3, the same car that was in the James Bond Goldfinger film. We also have two Ferraris and several very nice Harley Davidsons," Ernst Pfenninger, who runs the shop, told swissinfo.

The shop, operated by the Zurich Cantonal Bank , was set up back in 1872 by the cantonal authorities to help protect people from profiteers, who would take advantage of poor people desperate for money.

Not for profit

Providing cash at an interest rate of one per cent per month - lower than most banks are willing to offer - the pawnshop is not looking to turn a profit. In fact, it made a loss of about a half a million Swiss francs last year, a shortfall that the cantonal bank makes up.

But it has collateral - with a cellar filled with all kinds of things like laptops, violins, radios, mountain bikes, elegant clocks, rifles and plenty of gold jewellery.

Millions of Swiss francs worth of watches, necklaces, rings and bracelets lie waiting at the pawnshop while their owners look for the money to claim them back.

Spotting a fake

The four employees who run the business have gained an experienced eye to spot the real thing from a fake.

"There are a lot of copies out there of lovely Swiss watches like Cartiers and Rolexes. But we can usually see quite quickly if it's a fake," Pfenninger said.

The staff also has a small laboratory to test whether or not gold and diamonds are genuine and go on training courses to learn the subtleties and intricacies of gems.

Of the 70 items brought in each day, about ten are refused because they are imitations or could be stolen property.

The names of people who bring in "crooked" items are placed in the computer, just in case they try and do business again.

Keep your coat

The shop has stopped accepting fur coats, after it realised that clever women were using the pawnshop as a cheap alternative to costly storage houses in the summer. Guns and knives are also no longer wanted.

Clients who come to the shop, one of the last three still around in Switzerland, usually receive between ten and 30 per cent of the market value if the item is accepted.

Those that never come back to claim their items - about ten per cent of all clients - will find them under the hammer in one of the five auctions that the pawnshop holds each year.

Pfenninger, a former banker, wants to continue to attract new people to the shop. Last year he launched an advertising campaign aimed at increasing awareness. Since then, business has increased by an impressive 30 per cent.

And Pfenninger likes his job. "Every morning when I get up I look forward to my job and at night when I go home, I am satisfied because I have done good things for good people."

By Robert Brookes and Karin Kamp

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