Private collectors in Vilnius and Kaunas during the interwar period – from pharmacists to numismatists (1)

The period of 1918–1940 is known in history as the period of loss and recovery, attempts to save that which was old and to create something new. It was at that time, when the Polish occupation of Vilnius took place and the Lithuanian authorities declared Kaunas as the provisional capital, that there were many political, cultural, and economic differences between these cities, as well as differences between their inhabitants. But one thing that united the population was a tireless interest in history and the collection of things that reminded them of it. Who were the main collectors in Vilnius and Kaunas at the beginning of the 20th century? What interested them the most and what unique class did they belong to? This time we will be discussing the numismatists in Vilnius.

During the interwar period, active cultural life in Vilnius grew, and educated people formed the city’s elite. Among the elites, there were also those who liked and could collect money. One of them was Stefanas Syrwidas (1853–1929), who was distinguished as being a fun, communicative, and friendly person. He was known as a numismatist and a pharmacist. He lived in a multi-apartment building on Vokiečių street, where the Lithuanian Mint was previously located. Symbolically, his place of residence was related to his hobbies. He was particularly interested in coins minted in Vilnius. At the end of the 19th century, he was a member of the Society of Numismatics of Krakow, the Vilnius Society of Lovers of Antiquity and Ethnography, the Vilnius Museum of Science and Art Society, and the Vilnius Medical Society. Part of his collection, related to the Vilnius region, was handed over to the Society of Friends of Science of Vilnius. The further fate of the collection is not clear.

Konstantinas Stašys (1880–1941) was born in Panemunė municipality, in Veseliškės. He graduated from the University of Tartu as a pharmacist. He returned to Lithuania in 1918 and was one of the founders of the Lithuanian Sanitary Aid Society in Vilnius. He worked as an educator at the Vilnius Vytautas Magnus High School, was the chair of the Provisional Lithuanian Committee, and in the last six months prior to the Soviet occupation was a burgomaster of Vilnius. Stašys was one of those people who focused not on the quantity of collections, but on quality, so he focused only on very rare Lithuanian prints, numismatics, and medals. He had about 200 very rare thalers from Spain, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands. He also had Lithuanian publications from the 17th–18th centuries. However, in 1936, part of the collection was expropriated and taken away by the occupying authority. There were about 150 unique valuables. The other part went to the Lithuanian SSR History-Ethnography Museum (current Lithuanian National Museum). The dispersion of the collection makes it difficult to learn more about the coins and publications.

Fig. 1: LNMA, f. b-5, ap. 3, b. 1. Near the tomb of Jonas Basanavičius (on the right in the middle stands Konstantinas Stašys). Vilnius, Rasos cemetery.

One of the most unique collectors was Hajji Seraya Khan Shapshal (1873–1961). He was born in Crimea, graduated from the Faculty of Oriental Languages of the University of St. Petersburg, and worked there. He was appointed to teach Russian to the successor to Iran’s throne, Mohammad Ali; this suggests that he was considered a good language specialist. The collector was even an advisor to the new shah. However, as the political situation in the country changed, he left the Middle East and returned to Russia, where he continued to work in the field of science. The Trakai Karaims invited him to become the chief clergyman of the region in 1910, but he refused. Five years later he became the chief priest of the Karaim communities of Taurija and Odessa. Shapshal’s life story in Lithuania began only in 1927, when he was elected Chief Hakhan of the Polish-Lithuanian Karaites. He settled in Vilnius (see Fig. 2) with one main goal – to establish a museum of Karaite cultural heritage. He had been collecting cultural values for most of his life. His private collection contained ceremonial objects dating back to the second half of the 17th century, objects representing everyday life, unique weapons of the Middle East, and several archaeological finds from the Trakai region, reaching even back to the 14th century. Shapshal also had a collection of maps (19th c. Poland and Russia, 20th c. Turkey, Jerusalem, Hungary, and Finland, Vilnius City, atlases from WWI), postcards and photographs from the second half of the 19th century. As of 1951, the collector had collected and stored a collection of coins, which at that time was estimated to value about 100,103 roubles (later handed over to the History Museum of the Academy of Sciences). During the interwar period, he had already collected at least several hundred numismatic values dating back to the 8th century. He collected silver gold, billon, copper, and silver coins from the 15th-18th centuries. Among them were the akche silver coins of the 17th century Muhammad Girey IV (ruled from 1641–1644, 1654–1666), minted in Bakhchysarai (Crimea) between 1654 and 1666. He mostly had 18th-century coins, such as silver ones from Devlet Giray II, son of Hajii Selim Giray II. He also had a gold-plated onlik of Shahin Giray (1777) minted in Bakhchysarai. Another interesting coin is Shahin Girays ischal, made of copper in 1782. According to scientists, Shapshal collected the coins while living in Iran, Crimea, and Turkey. In addition, he also had Lithuanian coins, such as Alexander’s denar, Sigismund Augustus’ two-denar, and Zigmantas Vasa’s two-denar with the wrong date (1612 instead of 1621). He also had a denar of the Order of the Cross – a bracteate. This was a very rare coin, only three of which have been found in Lithuania. The earliest coin he had was a copper follis of the Roman Empire, minted between 308 and 310. He also collected Prussian shillings, poltoraks, groats, Swedish eres, Riga, Elbing, Livonian shillings and one-and-a-half-shillings, and had the 1.5 batzen of Maximilian II from 1570, Philip II’s groat from in 1608, Denmark’s 8 skillings, and a Dutch ducat from 1727. He also had Russian coins from the 18th and 20th centuries: kopecks, dengas, grivenniks, polupoltiniks, poltinas and mostly, of course, roubles. From the very beginning, the rich collection of Shapshal was intended to educate the public about Karaite history and cultural heritage. Some of the treasures were bought by the collector himself, others were received gifts.

Fig. 3. Example of Muhammed Giray IV's akche.

Fig. 4. Example of Shahin Giray's ischal.


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