Petr Meissner: Dissident for art

Petr Meissner: Dissident for art

Posted: December 11, 2002

By Jennifer Hamm



Antiquarian dealer fights a never-ending battle for free markets

Dressed in jeans and sneakers, Petr Meissner doesn't immediately strike you as one of the nation's top antique dealers or a newly minted publishing magnate. But with some 220,000 items in his collection, an auction house, an antique bookstore and the magazine art & antiques under his direction, Meissner is a heavyweight in his field.

Nor does his soft-spoken, bookwormish manner reveal his capacity for battle. But since being expelled from university for political reasons in 1970, Meissner, now 53, has taken on governments past and present in the name of art.

His current battle - one that has lasted for nearly a decade - is with the Culture Ministry. The ministry forbids exporting items it classifies as part of the country's cultural heritage, such as works by Czech painter Frantisek Kupka. And works from any collection returned to its owner after seizure by a past government also get a "no" from the ministry.

Meissner is equally frustrated by the government's policy of charging a 22 percent tax on imported antiques - even if they are also of Czech heritage. "I buy [abroad] and bring back a lot of important things that are from Bohemia," he says.

A draft proposal to open the market has been floating around Parliament since the early 1990s, according to Meissner. But he remains skeptical that the restrictions will change anytime soon.

"We are as close as we were eight years ago," he says. "[The attempt] to make an open international market for artwork will be more of the same in the next years."

Still, Meissner is determined that the day will come when he emerges victorious from what he calls his battle with the Culture Ministry. (Meissner likes to note that the Culture Ministry building is the former headquarters for Hitler's Office for the "Final Solution" of the Jewish Problem.)

And who knows? Life does often seem to break in Meissner's favor.

Business as sport

Born in Prague in 1949, Meissner was accepted to the prestigious Philosophical Faculty at Charles University, where he began his studies in the fall of 1968.

After the Soviets invaded, Meissner was among the many protesters who demonstrated against the occupation throughout the following year. He was asked to leave school. Though he fought it, the administration finally managed to expel him at the end of 1970.

By 1971, Meissner was a delivery man for the state book company - appropriately called Kniha, the Czech word for "book." A year later, Meissner was offered a job at the turn-of-the-century Antikvariat bookshop on Karlova street, just off the Charles Bridge.

"That was it," he says. "I've been there since." The shop now bears the name Antikvariat Meissner.

Then in his mid-20s, Meissner worked in the storage room, cleaned the shelves and started selling books. And he studied - not only the books he sold but also how the antique business worked.

"One day around 1980, I discovered that [the bookstore] was very, very important for the state company, because we made a profit for them," he says. While stores that sold new books had fixed prices, antique bookshops could set their own.

"We could buy and wait for the right moment to sell for much, much higher," he explains. "It was up to us how good we could buy and how good we could sell."

Today, Meissner shrugs off the conflict of making money for a regime that had kicked him out of school. "I didn't care," he says. "I don't care. I took the business part like a sport."

What mattered was that the store gave him the opportunity to study the antique business and follow the international book market, lessons that would pay him back handsomely in the decades to come.

Verbal fencing

In the early '80s, the woman who had hired him emigrated to Germany, making Meissner next in line to take over the store. But getting the state's approval was another matter. Both the local chapter of Prague's Communist Party and the state secret police kept close tabs on exactly who and what went in and out of the shop.

The secret police, Meissner recalls, were especially suspicious of frequent visits by Western diplomats. Though the police believed the diplomats were there for international espionage, Meissner says they simply "wanted to buy and to talk."

When questioned by the police about what he was selling, Meissner kept his dry sense of humor.

"What did he buy?" the police would ask.

"A book," Meissner would say.

"What was in it?"

"Pages."

In spite of such artful dodging, the state approved Meissner to run the bookstore in 1982. But the close surveillance continued. Even as the mood in the region began to change in 1989, the tension with the police never abated.

That year Meissner was traveling to Moscow to help coordinate an uncensored exhibition of new Soviet artists. He was in Moscow the day the exhibition opened: Nov. 17, 1989, the start of the 1989 revolution.

"The next day nobody cared about the exhibition," he recalls. "But it was the start of the changes."

The following September Meissner bought the bookstore, and as the market opened up, a kind of renaissance began. "They were nice years because there were a lot of new people here, new contacts," he says. "We really sold a lot."

The government began returning art collections seized by past regimes. Meissner now manages three of the largest collections, including the 10,000-piece Waldes group. "There was a huge amount of top artwork from restitution," he says. "It will not repeat for tens of years. It was a real opportunity and it was very nice to see how well cared for the collections were."

A historic discovery

In 1996, the Association of Czechoslovak Antique Booksellers, of which Meissner is the president, joined the international association, allowing dealers here to participate in international book fairs. The following year Meissner co-founded an auction house. And this year he started art & antiques magazine, a monthly Czech publication focusing on the industry.

For Meissner, collecting antique books and art is more than just a business. His family is part of the Bohemian history he works to preserve. His grandfather, who was justice minister during the First Republic, wrote a draft of the nation's first constitution, using France as a model. But President Tomas Garrigue Masaryk ultimately used his own, more American-style constitution.

For years Meissner thought his grandfather's draft was lost when the Nazis took him to Terezin (Theresienstadt) detention camp. "When we reconstructed the family house a few years ago, we found most of my grandfather's archives," Meissner says. "And there was the constitution from my grandfather, with Masaryk's notes."

But this antique is not for sale and won't be exported.

"I'm keeping it," Meissner says. "And one day it should probably go to a state archive."

Jennifer Hamm's e-mail address is jhamm@praguepost.com

Alan Levy's Prague Profile returns Dec. 18. vital statistics

Born Feb. 28, 1949

Education Entered Philosophical Faculty at Charles University in 1968, studied sociology and political economy until expelled in 1970

Career Delivery man for state book company, 1971; shop assistant for Antikvariat 1972-1982; manager of Antikvariat 1982-1990; owner of Antikvariat Meissner, 1990-present; co-founder of auction house Meissner & Neumann, 1997; founder of art & antiques magazine, 2002

Family Married in 1971, two children, divorced; remarried in 2000