Results were mixed at the Czech Republic's first international sale of art and antiques, held in Prague on 11 November by the local branch of the Austrian auction house, Dorotheum. The sale raised more than 3.26 million Crowns (£79,539), as just under half of the 258 lots were sold to a mix of Czech and Austrian buyers. The day's star performer was an undated oil by Czech painter Jakub Schikaneder (1855-1924) entitled "Prague street by night", which realised 320,000 Crowns (£7,804) against a reserve of 120,000 Crowns. Like many of the sale's eighty-nine paintings and drawings, this was consigned after its restitution from a State gallery to its original owner.
The biggest surprise was for the sale for 80,000 Crowns (£1,951) of a small watercolour entitled "Tyn Cathedral" by Oskar Laske (1874-1951), which carried a reserve of a mere 5,000 Crowns (£122). An anonymous buyer secured this painting of Prague's famous cathedral with a single telephone bid. Other highlights included a signed, 1927 black and white photograph of a nude by Frantisek Drtikol (a favourite among Czech collectors) which went for 140,000 Crowns (£3,414) to a local collector; an Austrian buyer paid 120,000 Crowns (£2,926) for a beautiful Czech-made early nineteenth-century 10cm-tall conical glass with a hand-painted depiction of Prague's Kinsky Palace, signed by C.L. Hoffmeister, and inscribed "Das Furstl. Kinschysche Pallais in Prag"; a signed 1899 colour lithograph advertising Moet & Chandon champagne by Alfons Mucha fetched 95,000 Crowns (£2,317) against a reserve of 25,000 Crowns.
Although the Dorotheum's sale was never going to break any world records, it was something of a landmark for the country's nascent art market. The strong presence of Austrian dealers was perhaps to be expected, given the Czech Republic's historic links with German-speaking central Europe, while the interest in glass and porcelain attested to Bohemia's strong tradition in these crafts. The Dorotheum has yet to announce if and when it will hold another sale, but the signs are that an art market is beginning to emerge in the Czech Republic. Sotheby's Prague office reports that, in a good month, it now handles between ten and fifteen pieces, while two local houses hold regular auctions.
Since the introduction in March 1994 of laws governing the certification for export of art and antiquities (The Art Newspaper, No. 38, May 1994, p.28), the legal arts trade has increased. Vera Skovajsova, the local director of Dorotheum, says the company is looking for larger premises because more and more business is now being conducted directly in Prague, rather than through its Vienna office. Two Czech auction houses hold regular sales (albeit with mixed success), and Katharina Podewils of Sotheby's in Prague notes that "[local] people are starting to buy more".
Yet despite these encouraging signs of life, works of any significance have yet to surface, while the quality of that which does crop up tends to be somewhat mediocre. Moreover, the bureaucratic procedure by which museum committees clear cultural objects for export can act as an impediment to business.
Ms Podewils can reel off any number of frustrating experiences with the certification authorities. How, for instance, it took various committees more than three months to grant an expert certificate for a small Balkan vessel worth, at most, £3,000. Or how a catalogue deadline was missed for some Chinese paintings because two museums prevaricated over certification. Or, the latest headache, how four separate export applications must went their way through officialdom in the hope that a quartet of early twentieth-century posters by the Russian artist Maliavin valued at £1,500 will escape classification as "national heritage".
Under Czech law, the authorities are obliged to offer the prospective seller the market value for any piece denied an export certificate on the grounds of national heritage. But because Czech museums and galleries are under severe budgetary restraint, they are often hard-pressed to come up with the money. In turn, this encourages the black market. "More and more work, I'm convinced, goes to the black market because of the time consuming export procedures", said Ms Podewils.
Not surprisingly, local interest centres on works by Czech artists. Unfortunately, however, a wider market for such works is limited by the authority's reluctance to grant export certificates. "Czech painters sell, but if their names are international it is a problem to get certification", said Ms Skovajsova. Hence little stars denoting "not for export" which appear alongside several lots in the auction catalogue.
Nevertheless, some pieces for which there is an international market do pass the bureaucratic test. When The Art Newspaper recently visited Sotheby's Prague office, for example, a slightly damaged 1947 signed lithograph by Picasso was waiting to be sent to London (estimated value £2,000-£3,000); a nineteenth-century decorative landscape by the German painter Altenkopf was destined for a Munich sale (estimated value DM 8,000-12,000); and an anonymous early seventeenth-century portrait thought to be Portuguese was awaiting shipment to London for identification.
As well as grindingly slow export procedures, the Czech Republic has other little surprises guaranteed to frustrate. In September, a team of experts from Sotheby's arrived in Prague to provide a free valuation service to the public. Announcements were duly placed in the national press and then all the telephone lines in central Prague went dead. Some, however, did bring objects for inspection, and there was "big demand" for musical instrument valuations. The company has since detected a degree of resentment from some local organisations for offering free valuations, while the country's biggest selling newspaper, "Mlado Fronta Dnes", managed to conclude that "conservationists are now worrying that similar business activities might result in the mass export of important art".
No doubt the same paper reserved comment when in May music manuscripts by national heroes Dvorak and Janacek were purchased at Sotheby's London sale of Continental Manuscripts and Music and brought back to the Czech Republic, whereupon they were hit with import duties and VAT equal to 40% of their purchase price. "This has to change in order to make it easier to acquire works and to encourage buying internationally", said Ms Podewils.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Slow push on Prague'