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Hidden from the Nazis and stored in a bunker for 60 years, the Liechtenstein collection goes on public view
The world's second greatest private collection has opened a grand palace in Vienna
The princely art treasures of Liechtenstein have finally gone on show, for the first time since they were hidden away when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. Containing masterpieces by Hals, Raphael, Rembrandt and Van Dyck, the collection was built up over four centuries and comprises 1,600 paintings, sculpture, and other works of art. The Liechtenstein princely family has spent €23 million ($27.4 million) on turning one of their Viennese palaces into a gallery, and the result is a triumph.
Prince Hans-Adam II said: “It has always been a tradition of the family to show our art to the public. World War II forced my father to put it into storage. It is a great pleasure for me, and for the whole family, to show it again in our Garden Palace.” Thanks to a deal between the Liechtenstein princely family and the Austrian government, the row which developed after the paintings were smuggled out of Nazi Germany to Switzerland and then Liechtenstein in 1945, was resolved in 2001, paving the way for the new museum.
The museum opened in March, when the prince chartered a special train to bring most of his country’s art lovers to Vienna (Liechtenstein’s population is just 33,000). A day later, the gates of his newly restored baroque summer palace were thrown open to the public.
No attempt has been made to furnish the building as it would have been when it was a princely palace, and it is very much a museum for displaying art treasures which had until the 19th century been dispersed among dozens of properties across central Europe. Altogether, the Garden Palace now houses nearly 200 paintings dating from the Renaissance to the 19th century.
In one wing of the ground floor are the gentlemen’s quarters, with a neo-Classical-style library. Its shelves, lined with leather-bound volumes and reaching up to the frescoed ceiling, look as if they have always been there, but the interior was originally designed for another palace and was only installed here in 1914. The ladies’ quarters, in the other wing on the ground floor, have been converted into three substantial rooms for temporary exhibitions. The inaugural display (until 7 November) is of neo-Classical and Biedermeier art. This will be followed by Rubens (5 December-27 February 2005).
The grandest rooms are on the piano nobile. Most dramatic of all is the enormous Hercules Hall, with a ceiling fresco by Andrea Pozzo giving a glimpse of the Olympic abode of the gods. Behind this lies the Grand Gallery, running the full width of the main section of the palace and overlooking the English-style garden. This gallery houses the family’s greatest set of paintings, eight immense pictures by Rubens that served as designs for tapestries depicting the heroic self-sacrifice of the Roman consul Decius Mus.
The two wings on the upper floor each have three large galleries for paintings. One wing houses early Italian pictures, early portraiture and Italian baroque art; the other is centred around Rubens, Van Dyck and other Dutch artists. These galleries also contain sculpture and furniture. Among the best objects are bronzes by Giambologna and Mantegna, pietra dura tables and an ornate 17th-century ivory tankard.
What is unusual for an aristocratic collection is that Prince Hans-Adam is still buying art on a massive scale, reversing the policy of his father, who sold off dozens of masterpieces after 1945. It has been reported that the prince spends around €15 million ($17.8 million) a year on art.
When asked how he chooses what to buy, Prince Hans-Adam answered that it has to be “a good piece of art from the 15th to 19th centuries, whoever the artist”. They could be pictures which were once in the collection and left—“something that we sold, gave away or was confiscated”. For instance, two works that were sold in the 1950s were recently reacquired, a Huysum flower still life and a Zagnelli portrait. Alternatively, acquisitions may replace something that was lost, perhaps by the same artist or school.
Last year was a bumper one for acquisitions. At the entrance to the museum lie two sculptures by Mollinarolo of Minerva and Diana, which had guarded the bridge at the Liechtenstein family’s castle in Ebergassing. These were lost in 1788, but have now been bought back and restored. Other important bronze sculpture acquisitions include Antonio Susini’s Nessus and Deianeira after Giambologna and Massimiliano Soldani Benzi’s Christ on the Mount of Olives.
Among the furniture bought were a south German cabinet of 1580 and an amethyst-topped Genoese table that came up at Sotheby’s. A number of important pieces of Sorgenthal porcelain were acquired from the Bloch-Bauer Collection, which had been seized during the Nazi period and restored to the Bloch-Bauers in 1999. Two pieces of porcelain with floral still lifes by Joseph Nigg were also purchased.
The pictures acquired last year include Bernardino Zaganelli da Cotignola’s 1500 Portrait of a Woman, sold off in 1950, then repurchased from a Swiss collector. Benvenuto Tisi’s dramatic Apotheosis of Hercules was bought from a European princely family. Giovanni Paolo Pannini’s Capriccio came from a French collector, via Sotheby’s. Works by two artists who were close friends were added: Francesco Hayez’s “Vendetta” from a Swiss collector and Friedrich von Amerling’s “Lost in dreams”, from Sotheby’s. Another addition from this period was Ferdinand Waldmüller’s Portrait of the Landlord.
Among the masterpieces is Hals’ Portrait of Man, bought at Sotheby’s for $3 million. This was an apposite purchase, since it had belonged to the Vienna-based von Rothschilds. After being seized by the Nazis in 1938, it was eventually restituted in 1998. Considerably more expensive was Valentin de Boulogne’s Merry Company with Fortune-teller, acquired just a few months ago from the Schönborn collection. This Caravaggesque scene was bought partly to fill the gap left by the earlier sale of an Orazio Gentileschi. The latest acquisition, made just before the museum’s opening, is Frans Snyders’ Recumbent Lioness, providing the Flemish room with a new focus. Thanks to the income from the Liechtenstein bank he owns, Prince Hans-Adam continues to be a major player in the Old Master market.