Czech “Mona Lisa” on sale at Prague Antique Fair

Jan Zrzavý - 'Portrét paní Osuské', photo: archive of Antikvity Art Auction house

Twice a year Prague’s New Town Hall hosts the city’s biggest Antique Fair. This year´s spring edition of the traditional event, held from April 20 to April 23, presents antique jewels as well as gemstones and small collectors’ items, which are not only exceptional pieces of art but serve as a good investment. Many are antique family jewels with a long history that their owners were forced to sell after fleeing from wars or revolutions in their native country.

Egyptian jewellery set by Adal Gabriel,  photo: archive of Antikvity Art Auction house
I went along to check out the spring antiques collection and spoke to Simona Šustková, vicepresident of the Antique Dealers Association which organizes the event.

“The collection was put together by about 65 Czech antique dealers from around the country, by dealers from Brno, Ostrava and other cities besides Prague, and they are showing and selling the best of what they have to offer. This year the main focus is on jewellery and there are many interesting pieces of jewellery, mostly from the 19th and 20th century but there will also be porcelain, glass items and paintings.”

Small items that, apart from being highly decorative, served as an investment?

“Exactly. Right now this is something that’s often discussed; where people can put their money, what’s a good and safe investment and this is a good answer.”

You have items here from different art periods …what are some of the oldest things on show and some of the most valuable that you would highlight?

“Often the owners are Russians who fled from Russia with interesting pieces of family jewellery that they sold in France …..there are objects that families who fled to the US or Latin America in 1938 took with them and that found their way back to the Czech lands after the war.”

“We have some ancient jewels, but they are not for sale, they are only being exhibited by the Antique Dealers Association. So the oldest pieces that are for sale would be from the 18th or 19th centuries. But the most interesting pieces are not so old, for instance we have a Cubic ring that is a very interesting piece. There are a great many Cubic objects in the country such as buildings or furniture or paintings, but not often rings or jewellery. So that is a very interesting item from 1915 -1920 and the second really interesting item is something from Egypt which my colleague will tell you more about.”

And you are highlighting the history of some of these gems?

“That’s right. Often the owners are Russians who fled from Russia with interesting pieces of family jewellery that they sold in France, a lot of Russians who left the country in 1917 ended up in the former Czechoslovakia, we have Russian families who have lived here for a hundred years now and who over the years have sold some of their family belongings. There are objects that families who fled to the US or Latin America in 1938 took with them and that found their way back to the Czech lands after the war. Many of the items travelled abroad with the families. Some came back with them, others they sold when they had existential problems. Jewellery as such always has a rich history.”

How did you learn these stories? Are some of these objects from private collectors who know the story of each item?

Jan Zrzavý - 'Portrét paní Osuské',  photo: archive of Antikvity Art Auction house
“Yes, antique dealers have a lot of time to talk to clients. They sit in the shop and talk to the people who come to sell items about the history of the object, the history of the family, and you learn a lot, family life stories reflecting turbulent periods in Czech history, European history.”

So when you are buying something precious here you are also buying a piece with a history…

“Yes, that is often the case with antique things and with jewellery you get the most interesting stories.”

What is the antiques market like in the Czech Republic – clearly very rich?

“Yes, it is quite rich, because people in our country were quite rich at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century so they were buying a lot, they were buying from France, they were buying from England, from Russia, from around the world. And this stopped before World War II. So during the Art Nouveau period and the early 1930s people were buying diamonds and Art Deco pieces and so on and so our country today is rich in antiques that people bought at this time.”

And how much of the spring collection is for sale?

“Let us say that 85 percent of the collection is for sale, about 10 percent of it will be sold at auctions, because we have auction houses here which are only showing items that will be auctioned off later, and about 5 percent of the items are only on show.”

Clearly some of the items will be extremely expensive, are there things that are affordable for the general public?

“Oh, yes. The silver pieces start at about 300 crowns, so a lot of people from around the Czech Republic come and buy small silver or gold items, they buy porcelain and so on. If you come with only 1,000 crowns in your pocket I am sure you will still make a good purchase here. ”

And how big is the public interest in this event?

“A jewellery set with a very special history is a bracelet and ring that was made for the Egyptian royal family.”

“We are very happy with the interest, we get about 7,000 visitors, sometimes 10,000 people in the space of four days, so on the scale of the Czech Republic, I would say it is very good.”

If you were to choose one thing that you could buy, no matter the price, which item would it be?

“That’s very hard to say because I have so many pieces, so many antiques passing through my hands every week, every month, every year, but of course, I am sure that I would find an interesting painting here. At auctions it is quite expensive and the price tends to run up and here if I find something interesting I can ask the person selling it to give me 10 percent cut in price. I really like buying paintings here because sometimes I come across something that is really very interesting.”

Hana Kobertová from the Antikvity Art Auction house represents one of the close to seventy antique dealers at this fair. She told me more about one of the most exceptional pieces there.

“A jewellery set with a very special history is a bracelet and ring that was made for the Egyptian royal family –the very last pieces commissioned by the Egyptian King Farouk I who was forced to flee from Egypt in 1952. It was intended for the queen and was made by the jeweller Adal Gabriel in Alexandria. The bracelet was actually finished before the king’s escape, but the ring was only finished after that. They are both made from 18 karat gold and the bracelet is decorated with real precious stones - diamonds and rubies - but the ring was made with fake stones. We think that the goldsmith did not want to spend more money on this piece because he believed the Egyptian king would never collect them, would never pay for the set.”

Jan Zrzavý - 'Portrét paní Osuské'  (drawing),  photo: archive of Antikvity Art Auction house
So did the king ever get them?

“No, he ordered the set, but never collected it from the goldsmith.”

What happened to them then?

“A Czechoslovak lady happened to visit Mr. Gabriel in Egypt, she knew him from a previous meeting in Czechoslovakia. And she liked the jewellery set and its history so much that she bought them for her private collection. So that’s how they got to Czechoslovakia.”

So they were in private ownership for years. How do they come to be for sale now?

“This lady - her family -decided to sell the set after the 1989 Velvet Revolution and its present day owner has decided to sell it again. So that’s how it comes to be here.”

So this is a piece that Egyptian King Farouk had made for his queen – how much would such a set cost?

“We expect it to sell for around 200,000 Czech crowns.”

That’s not so much. One would have expected a much higher price…a king’s ransom.

“No, we regard it as a nice piece of jewellery. Of course, the history is important as well, but we still have to price it according to the material and the quality of the work.”

There are some really unique items here – is there anything you would you highlight?

“The one I would highlight is a painting by Jan Zrzavý, the portrait of a lady named Osuska and what is interesting is that both the painting and the drawing that preceded it have come together again after many years so one art collector can buy both pieces and keep them together. ”

And if you were to buy one thing for yourself – what would it be?

“It would be the portrait of Osuska. I like it so much. It is so well done. Art experts talk about it as the Czech Mona Lisa. It is done in a modern style, but of course is not new. It is an exceptional work. ”