A Nation of Collectors
Collecting is one of the most widespread hobbies in the Czech Republic. Surveys have shown that four percent of the population collect something. The reasons that lead them to do so certainly vary, but clearly one of the most important is tradition.
Far back in Czech history, in the fourteenth century, the Czech king and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV was busy accumulating the relics of saints in rich reliquaries made of silver and gold and set with precious stones. These he then presented to churches. But in addition to religious objects he was also interested in other precious items. Pride of place went to the imperial coronation jewels, which he obtained in 1350 from Ludwig of Bavaria. These he kept in the castle of Karlštejn, near Prague. But his collections also included illuminated manuscripts, ancient coins and many other works of art. Charles IV’s passionate interest in collecting was unrivalled in the Czech lands and elsewhere in Europe, and thus it is only fitting to regard him as the symbolic founder of the Czech tradition of collecting.
A later follower in this tradition started by Charles IV was the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. To expand his collections, he drew on a network of ambassadors and art connoisseurs. The best known of these was Jacopo Strada, whom he invited to Prague in 1557 and named his Court Antiquary. Rudolph II’s collection included 1300 paintings, large numbers of weapons (several of which, made of gold, were his personal property) and twenty cabinets filled with a wide variety of curiosities.
By this time, the nobility was beginning to take up collecting as well. The country’s chateaus became homes to collections of paintings, china, art objects and tin figures. The Baroque period witnessed the advent of magnificent libraries and priceless collections of manuscripts.
The spread of collecting to broader masses of the population was given a strong impulse by two nineteenth-century inventions – the postage stamp and the postcard. Two major fields emerged – stamp collecting, or philately, and postcard collecting. It is interesting that postcards, which appeared on the scene much later than postage stamps, found a wide body of admirers much earlier than did stamps. Researchers have not managed to pin down the exact date when the postcard was invented, but most probably it was in 1869, when the first printed postal cards went on sale in the post offices of Austria-Hungary. In their research, scholars at the National Library in Prague have pointed to the importance of a well-known Czech postcard depicting the Hotel Angers in Karlovy Vary, which dates from 1883. After 1884 printed illustrations began to appear on the side of the card reserved for a message to the recipient more and more often they showed scenes from the countryside or city views. It was also at this point that postal cards began to be referred to as postcards.
The Municipal Museum in Prague has some postcards issued by the Sokol sports and athletics organization in 1886 showing scenes from Prague. Local sights were soon complemented by genre postcards - best wishes on various occasions, postcards with hunting themes, floral and other motifs. Another important change also occurred around this time: the advent of lithography meant that the originally blackand- white format was replaced with colour and the graphic design became sharper and more attractive. Naturally enough, all of these changes made postcards more interesting to collectors.
In 1900 a meeting of postcard collectors was convened in Prague. This event stimulated an interest in collecting postcards for their significance as documents with a historical and cultural value, compact records of the past. A Postcard Collectors Club was established and began publishing a magazine its membership card was itself a postcard, stamped with the club logo and the member’s individual number. In 1902 a postcard was issued to mark an excursion by the club to Zbraslav near Prague.
During this period, when postcards enjoyed great popularity, postage stamps too were collected, but the real period of growth for philately came after the independence of Czecholsovakia in 1918. This brought with it the country’s first stamps, designed by Alfons Mucha, who was also responsible for the first Czechoslovak banknotes. Postage stamps and banknotes continue to be collected today, though the number of philatelists has dropped in recent years.
Following the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia, other organizations of collectors came into existence. On 16 November 1918, less than a week after the end of the First World War, the Association of Collectors and Friends of Bookplates was founded at a meeting in Prague’s Palace Hotel.
The association is still in existence today, publishing its magazine The Bookplate, holding exhibitions and organizing meetings for those interested in small graphic works.
In 1919 the Czech Numismatic Society was established it too continues to thrive.
A particularly interesting area of design and technology is that of sacred illustrations. They began to appear in the nineteenth century, the products of such techniques as copper-plate engraving, steel engraving and lithography. Later they were handcoloured, decorated with paper lace borders, gilded and silvered. The hundreds of different images of this type are small works of art. At the present time there are only a few high-quality collections in this field.
The publication of Karel Augusta’s The Collector’s Handbook in 1927 was of major interest to collectors. Its chapters on archaeology, the collection of manuscripts, bibliophile publications, bookplates, weapons, toys, folk costumes and many other kinds of objects set the standard for years to come.
Another important collectors’ group is the Association of Friends of Small Works in Relief, founded in 1936, which brings together collectors of lapel pins, medals, orders and decorations and similar objects. The first lapel pins, which appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century, were linked to sports events. The real boom in lapel pin collecting came in the1960s and 1970s, when many firms issued them. Currently interested has cooled somewhat.
Collecting as a hobby reached its apogee during the Communist years. The limited opportunities open to individuals in professional life and the public arena led them to direct their energies elsewhere. Collecting focused on easily accessible objects of daily use both here and abroad in this way collectors brought the world outside closer to home. They made contacts abroad, and their activities and the quality of their collections were often on a par with those of foreign collectors, who of course had far greater opportunities to pursue their hobbies.
In the 1950s the most popular hobby was collecting matchbox labels. It was the only field supported by the state, which financed the printing of the labels. These were not in fact affixed to matchboxes but given to people in exchange for collecting and turning in waste paper and scrap metals. Several experts have made a thorough study of the history of match production in the Czech lands and managed to save old and unique labels and documents. At the present time, however, interest in this field is on the wane.
The development of non-traditional areas can be seen by looking at the history of the Club of Collectors of Curiosities, founded in 1965. In the early years, interest focused on postcards, lapel pins, various labels and wrappers. In other words, the focus of collecting activities was ordinary objects only by becoming part of a collection did they take on a documentary value. In this way, private collections have brought together everyday items in a range and quantity that cannot be matched by any museum.
Two fields stand out as being Czech specialities. The first is the collection of razor blade packets: outside the Czech Republic there is only one other collector, an Italian. Collections in this field run to tens of thousands of items. The second field – and this is uniquely Czech – is that of fez labels. In the past, Czech fez producers employed ornate labels with oriental motifs on boxes of Czech-produced fezes destined for Turkey and other Muslim countries. Such labels are no longer being produced altogether they amount to about 750 different types.
The leading Czech collectors, members of the Club of Collectors of Curiosities, regard their collections as research material, as sources of useful and valuable information. Many of them have taken on a second profession and become authors of specialized publications.
At the end of the 1960s a new fashion appeared, attracting thousands of collectors – a passion for Matchbox cars. This despite the fact that it was seldom possible to purchase the cars in this country, so collectors were forced back on their own resources for acquiring them.
Other new interests have also come recently to the Czech lands from abroad – Kinder Egg prizes, for example, and tropical fruit labels. The high standards of Czech collecting can be seen in the number of fields where Czechs stand supreme – beer mats, chocolate wrappers, liqueur and cheese labels.
Mention should also be made of collections that are so highly unusual that they are represented by only a single Czech collector. The Club of Collectors of Curiosities has more than a hundred collectors of this type in its books. Their collections include a complete run of vehicles from the Praga factory (the oldest dating from 1908), a collection of light bulbs that has no counterpart anywhere in the world, the works of Alfons Mucha, sewing machines, kitchen scales, puppets, miniature perfume bottles and dozens of other fields. The owners of some of these collections have set up museums that are open to the public.
The Club of Collectors of Curiosities organizes around twenty meetings in the course of the year, has its own magazine, The Collector, and publishes a directory of members with details of their collections. The main event each year is the annual fair, which this year will be taking place in Prague from 16-18 September.Ladislav Likler
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