Christmas in Vienna, 1920 – Part 2: The Dorotheum

by Spencer Howard

In December 1920, as Coningsby Dawson toured Central Europe writing articles to promote the American Relief Administration fund drive, he sought to inform his readers about not only the immediate work of the ARA, but also to offer a wider view of the newly independent nations that were struggling to recover from the war.  In this sketch, he describes how the ongoing economic catastrophe in Austria spared no one:

There is an institution in Vienna known as the Dorotheum. It is the Government pawnshop and has for its sign a falling hammer against a sinking sun. More than two hundred years ago it was founded by the good Emperor Joseph to protect his people against the rapacity of private brokers. Formerly the rule was that if articles were not reclaimed within the space of ten months, they would be passed under the hammer. Today the respite for redemption has been cut down to three months; the Government cannot take the risk of a declining currency over a longer period.

This afternoon I visited the Dorotheum. It is a vast building, constructed on the grand scale like a palace. Up and down its marble stairway throng the more respectable part of the tragedy of Vienna; pressing hard upon its heels come the vulture purchasers, for the most part foreigners, intent on making bargains out of Austria’s want. The Dorotheum is a museum of domestic sacrifices. Here is the complete story of a country gone bankrupt. There is no exchange in the world that is so crowded. Never in its history did it do so thriving a trade. Early in the morning the crowd begins to gather, each individual carrying a shamefully concealed bundle; it does not disperse till the gates are closed at night. The Dorotheum is patronised by all classes, from the bank-clerk, raising a few crowns on an alarm clock, to the archduchess, pledging her jewels. It is one of the last ports of call of the proudly destitute…

The first room we entered was jammed to the ceiling with everything from the cheapest electric fittings to the loot of palaces. I noticed a complete set of Empire drawing-room furniture marked at the absurd price of a thousand crowns—rather less than a dollar and a half. There were rare rugs on the walls—the kind one would purchase at Sloane’s for anything above three thousand dollars; they were offered at from three to sixty dollars. The sixty dollar one was a magnificent specimen. In another room there was an art gallery, guarded by an ex-engineer of European reputation, who now survives chiefly on tips. The pictures which he guarded were all for sale and many of them the work of famous modern painters. The cheapest I saw was a signed Russian landscape; it would have cost me thirty cents. The dearest, frame and all, could have been mine for six dollars. Art is not much in demand in Vienna.

But the more pathetic sight was not the luxuries of the rich, but the necessities of the respectable middle-class, which had been left unredeemed for three months and were now to be auctioned off. The price on the tags represented one-third their value, which had been advanced to their owners, plus a margin of interest on the Government’s outlay. Here were dresses, millinery, fur coats, gramophones, silver wedding-presents, libraries and even cradles. There was nothing you can think of that goes to make a home that some unfortunate had not pledged and lost…

Last of all I was taken to the auction-rooms, where the sales were in progress. [My guide] warned me that at this time in the afternoon the auctions were not interesting. It was too late. The expensive lots were sold earlier. But despite his pessimisms, I was interested.

There was a long room, dimly lighted. Running up and down it in an oval, was a pathway of tables. It formed a barrier like the enclosure of a circus. Seated on the outside of it were the bidders, with faces avid as gamblers’. At a high desk the auctioneer sat enthroned—he gets seventy dollars a year for his trouble. In the space on the inside, which the table surrounded, the goods being auctioned were piled. And what do you think they were? Children’s toys. Not new toys, but old favorites—dolls and rocking-horses and tin soldiers, the pillage of the nurseries of Vienna. They were the gifts which Santa Claus had left at little bedsides in years when the world was kinder…  It is a good scene to forget when you creep upstairs to fill your children’s stockings.

To be continued…

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