Meissner: Dissident for art
Meissner: Dissident for art
December 11, 2002
dealer fights a never-ending battle for free markets
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.)
who knows? Life does often seem to break in Meissner's favor.
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.
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.
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.
was it," he says. "I've been there since." The shop
now bears the name Antikvariat Meissner.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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."
questioned by the police about what he was selling, Meissner kept his
dry sense of humor.
did he buy?" the police would ask.
book," Meissner would say.
was in it?"
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.
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
next day nobody cared about the exhibition," he recalls. "But
it was the start of the changes."
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."
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."
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.
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.
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."
this antique is not for sale and won't be exported.
keeping it," Meissner says. "And one day it should probably
go to a state archive."
Hamm's e-mail address is email@example.com
Levy's Prague Profile returns Dec. 18. vital statistics
Feb. 28, 1949
Entered Philosophical Faculty at Charles University in 1968, studied
sociology and political economy until expelled in 1970
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,
Married in 1971, two children, divorced; remarried in 2000