The unbelievable story of a 17th-century cameo

Caspar Losselius

Lost, stolen, sold, discovered in an antique shop, confiscated, ruined by a flood and finally restored and returned to its owner - that's the turbulent story of a 17th-century painting of a wealthy Prague burgher that was once in possession of Prague's Municipal Museum. The museum is now showing the cameo portrait whose story is just as interesting as the story of the man it depicts.

Caspar Losselius was a well-to-do Prague citizen and a devout Catholic whose career sky-rocketed after 1620 when Czech Protestant estates were defeated by the Habsburgs. He became mayor of Prague's Old Town and was even given a noble title by Emperor Ferdinand II.

In 1621 Losselius commissioned a portrait of himself for his office, most likely from the Flemish artist Aegidius Sadeler. The oval cameo, painted on a copper plate, shows a bearded man in a ruff collar and on the rear a few symbols confirming his loyalty to the Catholic faith and the Habsburg dynasty. In 1886, some 250 years after Caspar Losselius's death, the miniature was acquired by Prague's Municipal Museum. After that there was no record of it for more than a century. Jan Nepomuk Assman from Prague's Municipal Museum.

"It got lost and was found twice. For the first time it disappeared during WWII. The Germans evacuated it from Prague to a castle owned by a German noble woman where the picture probably got stolen. Interestingly, it was never missed by the museum. Then all of a sudden the cameo surfaced in an antique shop in Prague, sold by an unsuspecting lady."

Prague's Municipal Museum
The priceless cameo was discovered by an art historian by chance. Because of its value it had to be confiscated by the police and its rightful owner was to be determined by a court. And again because of its value the court placed it in the safe deposit of a bank. The year was 2002 and no one knew that a flood wave was about to sweep Prague with water reaching even the contents of safe deposits.

"Just as the court decided the portrait indeed belonged to our museum we found out it was destroyed, impossible to display. The picture was completely covered in a white crust of corrosion. But luckily the coat actually protected the oil painting underneath. So the cameo was restored to its original beauty and raised from the dead for the second time."

Ironically, the bank where the picture was nearly drowned is just across the street from the Prague Municipal Museum's building, where the cameo portrait of Caspar Losselius can now be seen until the end of February.