Private collectors in Vilnius and Kaunas during the interwar period – from pharmacists to numismatists (2)

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.

After becoming the temporary capital, Kaunas became a cultural centre for the whole of Lithuania at the time. Various specialists gradually moved there because the demand for civil servants was increasing. Intellectuals fleeing the oppression of the Polish occupiers also settled here. In Kaunas, compared to Vilnius, there were more individuals who collected only values related to Lithuanian folk art (such as Adomas Varnas, Kazys Grinius, Adomas Galdikas, Adolfas Sabaliauskas). They did this by emphasising the uniqueness of Lithuanian folk art and the necessity of its preservation. Thus, there were fewer numismatists who would have followed the work initiated by the Vilnius Archaeological Commission in the temporary capital.

The most famous numismatist of the interwar period was Mykolas Šlepavičius (1863–1948). He was a Kaunas interwar businessman and was born in Telšiai County, Jaušaičiai village. Most of his antiques consisted of his father’s legacy, and even at the beginning of the proclamation of the provisional capital in Kaunas, he established an antique store at Gedimino Street. There was no demand for purchasing valuables, so the entrepreneur sought and found other ways to make money. At the end of the 1930s he was the governor of Kaunas City Municipality “Kauno Lombardas.” He donated some 200,000 litas to Lithuanian public affairs. As Z. Toliušis wrote, "Šlepavičius was a universal collector. He was a philatelist, numismatist, bibliophile, exlibrist, and collector of autographs, porcelain, and icons. In short, there was no area in which this Šliopka was not interested.” To make his collection meaningful, the collector wanted to open a public exhibition. He was even awarded the medal of Grand Duke Georgij Mikhailovich, presented to exceptional museums and collectors. The collector rarely bragged about his collections in the press. However, in 1935 he made an exception – Šlepavičius presented his valuable medals – a medal created on the occasion of the visit of Russian Duke Konstantin Nikolayev to Birmingham, the medal dedicated to the merits of architect Weissman in the 18th century and the director of Petras and Povilas School, the Petrapilis Military Medical Academy Medal, the medal to commemorate the anniversary of Alexander II engineer Wilson’s manufactory, and another commemorative medal to mark General Vorontsov’s visit in Versailles with King Louis XVIII of France. According to the collector himself, the total value of the collection was about 4 million litas.

Fig. 1. "Laiko žodis," 1935, No. 18–19, p. 13–14. Part of the coins from Šlepavičius' collection.

Another collector, important both in Vilnius and Kaunas, was Povilas Karazija (1887–1955). He came from Kupiškis. Like many Lithuanians at that time, he graduated from higher education in Russia – St Petersburg, and obtained the qualification of educator. During the interwar period he taught at the Vilnius Vytautas Magnus High School (at the current Central Palace of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre in Gediminas Avenue), where, unlike other high schools, classes were taught in Lithuanian. In the Polish-occupied Vilnius, it was difficult and even risky for Lithuanians to maintain their culture. In 1936, the Polish occupying power expelled Karazija from Vilnius. The collector settled in Warsaw, but after a year he was forced to leave Warsaw, so he returned to Lithuania. From 1938 to 1949 he worked in Kaunas – Vytautas Magnus Culture Museum (since 1944 – Čiurlionis Art Museum) and in the Vytautas the Great War Museum.

Fig. 2. "Laiko žodis," 1935, No. 18–19, p. 13–14. Collection of valuable medals. At the top: permission to have a beard, issued by Peter I in 1725. Whoever couldn't buy such a medal had their beard shaved.
After his deportation, it was difficult for Karazija to recover the property he had left in Vilnius. Especially because the collection contained different books in different languages – it was difficult to assess the threat they posed to Polish nationalism. A special commission was even formed, but it turned out to be incompetent to carry out the task it was given – all the books were detained. Only part of the collection was passed on to the Lithuanian Scientific Society. This case also bears witness to the ill-treatment of officials with Lithuanian cultural values. During his trip to Lithuania in 1937, he left some rare books for Konstantinas Stašys to give to the Lithuanian Scientific Society. However, during the search, the police seized some of the books from Stašys and sent them to the customs authorities for inspection. One of them – the Statute of Lithuania, which was published in 1614 – was later noticed at an antique bookshop in Warsaw. The book, with the help of the police, was taken from the bookshop, and a case was drawn up. It turned out that the 1614 book, was stolen from customs by an official and sold to the bookshop.

Fig. 3. LNM, Ft 9364. Board of the Vilnius Lithuanian Club. From left to right: Petras Mačiukas, Julija Janulaitytė - Matjošaitienė, Vladas Narbutas, Paulina Tamulevičiūtė, Povilas Karazija

On 5 April, the case concerning the book was heard by Vilnius Regional Court. The customs official was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison while it was decided to return the book to its owner, Stašys. However, this book is only a small part of the rich collection of Karazija. In total, he owned about 8,000 books, of which 5,000 were unique scientific works dedicated to numismatics, sphragistics, etc. It is worth mentioning the treasure of Lithuanian silver longs, weighing about 50 kg, which is also from the numismatics collection. The collector also had 181 pieces of Lithuanian kapos, 18 Kyiv hryvnias, eight Novgorod hryvnias, and Boleslov III’s (the Duke of Poland, who reigned 1102–1138) coins. Among the unique coins were Steponas Batoras’ 1585 thaler, the Torun 1629 fire thaler, Peter I’s 1704 and 1710 roubles, the pilot 1762 thaler of August III, a 1.5 rouble, from 1839, Philip II (the king of Spain, Portugal, Naples and Sicily) countersigned coin from 1564 with the initials of Sigismund Augustus, as well as the “Leki” thaler, minted in 1623, the interregnum thaler from 1632, the taler of Jonas Kazimieras of Gdansk from 1650, and the thaler of Stanislovas Augustus in 1771 with scales.

Fig. 4. 1629 Torun thaler of Zigmantas Vaza, with an image of the city in flamed, minted to commemorate the memory of the city being liberated from Swedish occupation.

Fig. 5. 1771 thaler of Augustas Poniatevskis.

1.    Bartynowski Władysław. Sprawozdanie z czynności Wydziału Towarzystwa numizmatycznego w Krakowie za rok 1890. Wiadomości Numizmatyczno-Archeologiczne, 1890, nr. 1, p. 4.
2.    Ilgievič Henryka. Vilniaus senovės ir mokslo mylėtojai XX amžiaus pradžioje. Vilnius, 2019, p. 234.
3.    Sulimczyk [Uziębło, Lucjan]. Z Wczorajszego Wilna: ś. p. Stefan Syrwid i inni miłośnicy pamiątek krajowych. Słowo, 1930, nr. 4, p. 3.
6.    Žilėnas Vincas. Lietuvos kolekcininkai ir muziejininkai – 11. Povilas Karazija. Kultūros barai, 1983, nr. 10, p. 67–69. 
8.    Žilėnas Vincas. Istorijos ir etnografijos muziejus. VUB RS. F328-106, l. 15A.
9.    Kauno lombardas. Lietuvos aidas. 1932, nr. 190, p. 5. 
10.    M. Šlepavičiaus sukaktuvės. Keleivis, 1929, nr. 8, p. 5.
13.    Pirmoji Lietuvos respublika (1918–1940 m.): Kas, kur, kada? Kaunas, 2018, p. 223.
14.    P. A. Mykolo Šlepavičiaus sukaktis. Lietuvos žinios, 1939, nr. 152, p. 6.
15.    Toliušis Zigmas. Apie kolekcionavimą, bibliofilus ir kolekcininkus. Vilnius, p. 266, 270. 
17.    Laiko žodis, 1935, nr. 18–19, p. 13–14.
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