Antique Dealer Hunting in Prague

I took a break from research and had a long weekend in Prague a couple of weeks ago – well I say I took a break from research, but it seems I must have packed ‘research’ in my bag, because when I got to Prague I ended up doing more ‘research’ on 20th century antique dealers based in Prague!

It started with a bit of serendipity (as most of the best things do!); I always try to visit museums and galleries when I can (obviously), and ended up going to the Veletrzni Palac (the ‘Trade Fair Palace’ – what an extraordinary name for a public art gallery), which is part of National Gallery Prague.  This was because the National Museum of Prague was closed for renovation – actually, when I got to Veletrzni Palac that was also partially closed for renovation….but they did have an extraordinary exhibition called ‘The Mystery of Capek’s Carpet’. The exhibition is running at the Trade Fair Palace until 25th November…so if you are going to Prague I’ve certainly recommend a visit!

The Mystery of Capek’s Carpet exhibition at National Gallery Prague. Photo copyright of National Gallery Prague.

The exhibition is based on a short story by the Czech writer Karel Capek (1890-1938) called ‘Cintamani and Birds’, published in a volume of short stories called ‘Tales from Two Pockets’ (1929).  The story is based around the discovery, in an antique shop, of a rare ‘white-ground Anatolian carpet’, dating from the 16th century. The collector spots the carpet in the shop of ‘Madame Severynova’ and tries, unsuccessfully, to buy it throughout the story.  It is guarded by Madame Severynova’s pet Poodle, ‘Amina’ – a dog ‘so fat it makes you ill’, as Capek states in the story. Anyway, the collector eventually realises Madame Severynova will never sell the carpet to him so he resolves to break into the shop one night and try to steal it – but of course, the dog will never let this happen and repels him and he never manages to get the carpet – ‘the one-of-a-kind carpet is still lying there today’ Capek writes at the end of the story; ‘It is, I’m certain, one of the rarest carpets in the world. And right to this day, that hideous, mangy, stinking Amina is on it, grunting with bliss….’.

The eponymous carpet was recently acquired (in 2014) by the National Gallery, Prague and this was the catalyst for the exhibition. Here’s the carpet – a very rare, white ground, 16th century ‘Anatolian’ example (from modern-day Turkey).

‘Chintamani and Birds’ carpet in the Mystery of Capek’s Carpet exhibition at Trade Fair Palace, Prague. Author’s photo.

The story was also made into a film in 1964, called ‘Chintamani Carpet and a Swindler’ directed by Jiri Krejcik. Here’s a film poster for the film.

Film Poster for ‘Chintamani Carpet and a Swindler (1964). Photo from National Film Archive, Prague. Copyright National Film Archive, Prague.

The exhibition includes a range of material associated with Capek (who was a collector of Oriental carpets himself) some photo stills from the film, showing ‘Amina’ the dog (not a poodle, as in the short story, but a dachshund) and the collector (the ‘Swindler’)’ in the movie, with the rare carpet in the background.

Chintamani Carpet and a Swindler (1964) film still. Image copyright National Museum, Prague.

Chintamani are wish-granting jewels in Buddhist philosophy and are represented by the three little floating balls above the wavy lines in the carpet in the photograph here – the combination of Chintamani and Birds is, apparently, very rare in ‘Oriental Carpets’, hence the desire of the collector to acquire this example in the story.

Anyway, what interested me most in the exhibition was that the ‘antique shop’ in the short story was actually based on a real antique shop in Prague in the 1920s owned and run by a female antique dealer called Helena Zajickova (1879-1944). There was a design for a new shop sign for Zajickova’s shop in the exhibition –

Hand-coloured photograph of a design for a neon sign for Helena Zajickova’s shop, by Neon CKD, 1933. Author’s photo.

Helena Zajickova was one of the leading antique dealers in Prague during the 1920s and 1930s – she started trading in c.1906, and by the 1920s was supplying antiques to Prague Castle. According to the exhibition Zajickova’s shop was located at 10 Palacheko Street, in Prague’s New Town in the 1920s. So, of course, I had to go and see if I could find the shop – and it still exists…the window grills appear to be the same ones!

10 Palackeho Street, Prague, 2018. Author’s photo.

Capek’s niece, Helena Kozeluhova, recalled in her memoires that her uncle Karel Capek, would often visit the shop of Helena Zajickova, and that she had a cat (rather than a dog) that would sit on the carpets – fiction and reality often collide in these fascinating ways of course, but it was interesting that I found another important antique shop in such a serendipitous way!


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