By Jonathan Kandell
In Prague, city of churches, castles and Cubism, the search for antiques is hardly Kafkaesque.
Nobody can deny the surpassing beauty of Prague. Even Parisians concede that the city has an architectural inventory and mesmerizing street ambience to rival their own. But Prague as an undiscovered Mecca for antiques collectors? Well, that I thought was a harder sell, having often visited the Czech capital and scoffed at the kitschy mementos on display in shops lining the tourist thoroughfares.
So it was with some skepticism that I agreed to a full-day tour of antiques dealers under the guidance of Karen Feldman, author of Prague: Artel Style, a paperback largely devoted to ferreting out the city’s best vintage clothing, jewelry, glassware and household furnishings. “In New York, London or Paris, you go to antique shops that specialize—you want a Bauhaus chair, you know exactly where to find it,” says Feldman. “In Prague, that is rarely the case. Most shops are generic, which means you have look around. But you will be rewarded.”
Feldman’s credentials are impressive. She moved from San Francisco to Prague in 1994 to oversee an American-owned shampoo factory. Instead, she fell in love with traditional Czech glass and crystal linked to Artel, an early 20th-century artisan workshop, and began to produce her own fine glassware under the same label—thus her guidebook’s title.
We begin in Malá Strana, the upscale district on the western side of the Vltava River where Prague Castle looms high above the Baroque churches and townhouses. On a curving medieval alley a short walk from the statue-studded Charles Bridge, I follow Feldman into Antiques Ahasver, best known for its vintage linens and clothes, including early 20th-century folk costumes. The owner speaks English and conveys what she knows—and readily admits what she doesn’t know—about the provenance of objects on sale in this appealingly cluttered two-room shop. She traces her interest in antique clothes to her father, a professional photographer who used them as props for his still lives and portraits. She apprenticed for years with an antiquarian who specialized in fabrics, and then opened her own shop a decade ago.
Among the highlights at Antiques Ahasver on this particular visit are the following: A circa 1880 lady’s morning coat, of white linen embroidered and hemmed by hand, and worn only at home before dressing up for the day; a white silk wedding gown for a 17-year-old bride in 1903; a wide selection of embroidered linen tablecloths and napkins from the 1920s and 1930s; and, most intriguing of all, a circa 1850 bonnet woven from metallic fibers, most prominently brass, and with a magenta ribbon bun in the back. It was from Turnov, a wealthy garnet mining center during the 19th century located some 55 miles northeast of Prague near the Polish border.
Two tram stops further west leaves us at the foot of grassy, wooded Petrin Hill, the location of Starožitnosti pod Kinskou, a sprawling retail space devoted mostly to early 20th-century Czech paintings and prints of landscapes and portraits. “I come here if I want to buy something significant, but not outrageously priced,” says Feldman. “I feel confident they are not going to rip me off.” This is where she purchased “a stately portrait of a cow” that hangs above the fireplace in her country home, an hour’s drive south of Prague. Besides the framed artworks, the store offers fine furniture, most notably on this visit a pair of late 19th-century brocaded chairs and an 18th-century wooden trousseau chest inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
A 10-minute tram ride east back across the Vltava River brings us to Staré Mesto, the Old Town. We stroll through the expansive Old Town Square, which is anchored on its east side by the twin-towered 14th-century Týn Church. Most tourists gather on the square’s south side in front of the Old Town Hall to view its early 15th-century astronomical clock, which on the hour sets into revolving motion the statues of the 12 Apostles. But instead of lingering, we visit a trio of antiques establishments within easy walking distance of the square.
Art Deco Galerie, as its name implies, focuses relentlessly on the 1920s and 1930s. “It’s great to see the Art Deco period done so well,” says Feldman. “The owner has a good eye, and while she may be more expensive than others selling similar objects, she saves me the time of having to look for Art Deco all over town.” At first the shop resembles a fashion parade, with vintage clothes hanging on mannequins. But there is an impressive collection of lamps and glass objects, as well as whimsical, windup kitchen clocks in brightly colored metal and porcelain. An elderly woman drops by to sell the shop owner a mint-condition 1930s Lent Carnival silk gown with a fluffy lamb’s-wool crown that she had worn as a teenager.
The nearby retail shop of the Dorotheum, Prague’s leading auction house, has an excellent assortment of jewelry, glass and porcelain. These are small enough to be hand-carried back to the United States, an important consideration because the house won’t ship overseas. Among the eye-catching jewelry on display is a profusion of deep-red garnet brooches and bracelets from the 1850s to 1920s. “Some of them are actually cheaper than new ones made with lesser-quality stones,” says Feldman. “It’s the same with the glassware.” She points to six mouth-blown Moser glasses (named after one of the most renowned Czech designers) from the 1930s that sell for the price of a single newly made glass of the same label. There are also several unique mouth-blown, hand-cut and hand-polished flower vases from the 1930s in a grayish hue that is no longer used. And even more arresting is a late 19th-century Biedermeier-style beer mug in blue and gold.
Our last stop in the Staré Mesto is the Museum of Czech Cubism at the House of the Black Madonna, originally a 1912 department store and café. No people embraced Cubism as thoroughly as the Czechs. The Czech Cubist Movement rose around 1910 in Prague, when a group of young expatriate artists who had been influenced by Picasso and Braque in Paris returned home. They applied Cubist principles to paintings, sculpture, architecture, interior design and everyday household objects from cups and saucers to desks and chairs. Cubist design elements, still popular nowadays, are even evident in the oddly recessed easy chairs and angled table legs at The Augustine, a newly opened hotel where I stayed. “Cubism became identified with the burst of nationalism that created a rich, independent Czechoslovakia when the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed after World War I,” explains Feldman.
The top floor of the four-story museum is devoted to drawings and the second floor to sculpture. In the third-floor furniture display, among the most memorable pieces are a zebra-striped chair whose seat flares out in front and narrows towards the back and a boudoir dressing table of pear wood with three angled mirrors that create the illusion of a Cubist sculpture. On the ground floor, the museum shop sells reproductions of a number of pieces from the collection, as well as a few originals such as a re-upholstered easy chair resembling the zebra-striped one on the third floor. Adjoining the shop, there is a café restored to its 1912 Cubist design, with metal-framed windows that jut out like cut crystal and huge bent-metal chandeliers.
We end the day on the eastern outskirts of Prague, far from the stately palaces, striking churches and labyrinthine streets that lent surreal mystery to the novels of Franz Kafka. In the Karlín neighborhood, guys fix motorbikes on the sidewalks and the faded pictures in a beauty-parlor window show twists and dips from forgotten styles. Our car service deposits us at Nový Antik Bazar, a mid-1800s warehouse the size of a football field with a vast inventory of 19th- and 20th-century furniture, chandeliers, lamps and other decorative objects. “If I wanted to start looking someplace for Czech antique furniture, it would be here,” says Feldman. “This is a treasure trove.”
Under the high wooden rafters and hanging antlers and boar heads, there are rows upon rows of sofas, easy chairs, rocking chairs, dining sets, lamps, radios and turntables. Feldman admires a dining room breakfront by the famous Czech Art Deco designer Jindrich Halabala (1903–78). I am riveted by a lacquered, curving desk from the 1920s that radiates authority. A person entering an office and facing somebody behind this desk would surely cower.
Further south, in the Žižkov neighborhood, our car service takes us to Galerie 22, another depot-sized outlet for household antiques—though with objects that are in better condition. “This looks like the place where Nový Antik Bazar’s furniture got restored and put up for sale,” jokes Feldman. And indeed, Galerie 22 is famous for its high-quality restoration work, done in a series of backrooms that are open to visitors. Among the rarer samples on display in the showrooms are a 1930s lacquered walnut two-level lamp stand with a curving tubular chrome lamp neck ending in a glass globe, and with side cabinets also of lacquered walnut; a 1920s card table with a lacquer finish and chairs with spindly, bent legs; and a 1930s plant stand, made of polished, painted and lacquered wood, holding up nine flower pots on its three columns.
Night has fallen, and a cold, wet mist blankets the city by the time I return to my hotel. In the basement bar, where in medieval times Augustinian monks brewed beer, I nurse a shot of the classic, herbal Czech digestif Becherovka and thumb through the introduction to Feldman’s guidebook. One of the reasons for writing the volume, she explains, was the heartbreak brought on by hearing foreign visitors lament, “There’s nothing to buy in Prague.” That’s one complaint this longtime visitor won’t be making anymore.