Sample of mysterious silver treasure goes on display in Prague City Museum

Photo: Jan Vrabec, Prague City Museum

Prague City Museum recently put on display a part of the biggest silver treasure ever found in the country. Visitors are able to admire just a fraction of the vast depot of nearly half a ton of silver jewelry, tableware, goblets, coins as well as raw silver, which was hidden in a Prague building some time after the end of WWII. The museum is now trying to find out who hid such a huge treasure, only discovered by accident roughly three years ago.

Photo: Jan Vrabec,  Prague City Museum
Displayed in a glass showcase, samples of the now famous silver treasure are now a major attraction in Prague City Museum’s central building. But the dozens of silver spoons, coins, bracelets, goblets, buckles and other objects say little about the actual size of the find, discovered during the renovation of an apartment building in the Prague district of Smíchov some three years ago. Martina Lehmannnová is a curator at the City Museum in charge of the silver treasure.

“It was a very huge find; in all the treasure found contains more than 21,000 objects. It’s 493 kilos of silver and other material such as nickel-silver alloys and some others, and it’s really one of the biggest silver treasures ever found in the world.”

The riches were found in November 2008 in an ordinary apartment building in the district of Smíchov when three Ukrainian workers, who had been hired to do the job, discovered a secret room under the stairs full of dusty metal objects. They first called TV reporters to the site, apparently unaware of just what they had come across.

“At first, they thought that the things were made of aluminum, and they didn’t know what to do with it. So they called reporters from TV Nova who advised them to also contact the police. The police discovered they were in fact made of silver, and later tried to determine who the owner of the treasure was.”

However, the police were unsuccessful. As no one claimed ownership rights to the treasure, it was passed on to the City of Prague. Curator Martina Lehmannová explains what exactly was found.

“The first group of objects includes pieces compiled by the owner; these are mainly cups, goblets, and so on. They are marked with hallmarks of various other producers. That’s about one third of the treasure. Another group consists of raw materials, silver sheets, plates and such that were used to make new silverware while the third part is the silverware itself.”

Two years after the discovery, the police closed the case without having established the treasure’s owner or their heirs. However, some the objects, branded with the respective silversmith’s hallmark, provide a clue for the curators to determine who the owner of the mysterious treasure might have been.

“These objects feature the hallmark VA. We believe it’s the monogram of the producer, Alois Vokurka. He was an early 20th century silversmith who lived in Prague. We know he studied at the city’s arts academy and we also know something about his production in the beginning of the 1920s. But this silver treasure was compiled in the 1940s, between the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the communist era. So right now, we are really not sure that the treasure belonged to Alois Vokurka or to someone else.”

Also, around one third of the 21,000 or so objects are coins dated between mid 19th century and the 1940s. But when it comes to determining the time when the treasure was actually hidden, the researchers have a better hint.

“We know that the treasure was hidden in 1947 or 1948. We know this because among the objects were also some newspapers from 1947. The owner was possibly afraid of the communists, and thought his property could be confiscated. The papers were just placed among the things; they were not used to wrap the silver objects or anything like that. Maybe someone wanted to make a note of when the treasure was hidden”.

The current value of the treasure was estimated at six million crowns, or more than 320,000 US dollars. The City Hall duly paid the finders their fee of 10 percent of the value. The question of how much the treasure was worth in the post-war years is one that the researchers will be looking into.

“We will do a lot of research. I will first explore the city archives and look through the lists of inhabitants to see if I can find who lived in the building, whether that person had any connection to silversmiths, and so on. The part of Prague was home to many jewelers and smiths, and perhaps some of them worked mainly with silver.”

Among all the questions, one issue seems to be clear. The owner of this huge treasure was clearly concerned about the rising power of the Communist party which took power soon after the unknown silversmith hid his precious possessions under the stairs of the Prague building. He possibly concealed only part of his property which would explain why the treasure contains exclusively objects made of silver and related alloys.

“He might have specialized in silver. If he hadn’t, and if he also had gold and other materials, he could have left Czechoslovakia at the time with it, and kept his silver treasure hidden for the time when he came back.”

Curator Martina Lehmannová from Prague City Museum says the Smíchov treasure is so significant because of its size rather then thanks to the artistic quality of the actual objects.

“It’s a very nice sample of silver production for somewhat conservative clients. There are some very nice products mainly for women; they are quite charming bus perhaps not as progressive as the state of the art objects we know from Vienna. That was the centre for silver production in the first half of the 20th century and the rest of Central Europe was following the works of Viennese silversmiths, most notably the Wiener Werkstädte.

“But this is something different. These works are more conservative, sometimes inspired by the 19th century fashion. They are fine pieces technologically but as I said, the shapes are more conservative.”

In the two years since the treasure was found, no one has raised any ownership claims. Martina Lehmannová will now be spending a lot of time in the archives searching for the mysterious silversmith. And if she is successful, the museum is ready to negotiate with the potential heirs although it’s not clear whether the museum would just give it to them.

“If we find them or if someone claims to be a descendant of the family, we will talk to them. There are ways of dealing with such situations; for instance in Austria, when you visit some exhibitions you can see signs that says, ‘this painting used to be Jewish property; we don’t know the owner but if you do, please contact us’.

“So if someone comes up and says they have to do something with the former owner of the silver treasure, Prague City Museum will certainly talk to them.”

The sample of the silver treasure can be seen in Prague City Museum’s main building at Florenc. Once the complete set is restored and the research finished, the museum is planning to stage a major exhibition of the complete find which should open in some two year’s time.

Photo: Jan Vrabec, Prague City Museum