April 2012, ARTnews

Princely Treasures

Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein revitalizes a dynastic legacy

The castle in which Prince Hans-Adam II von und zu Liechtenstein lives is perched on a rocky cliff high above Vaduz, its gloomy stone exterior concealing one of the world’s largest private art collections. “No Visits,” warn signs on the cobblestone road winding up to the fortified residence, which dates from the 12th century.

I had arranged a rare interview with Seine Durchlaucht, or His Serene Highness, as the prince is called, in the mountainous microstate wedged between Switzerland and Austria. So, after I arrived at the castle’s front gate and crossed a moat spanned by a covered wooden bridge, the electronically controlled portcullis silently opened.

Although he is one of the world’s wealthiest rulers – the Swiss business magazine Bilanz estimates his wealth at $7.1 billion, with the art collection comprising over $4 billion of that – the prince has a relatively understated style. His subjects say he can be spotted jogging, sometimes barefoot, through the woods around the 130-room castle he shares with his son and heir, Prince Alois, and family. I encountered neither guards nor butlers; a secretary showed the way inside, where the 67-year-old monarch greeted me at his office door in a brown-check sports coat. Towering over six feet four, the prince ducked his head as we moved through the low ancient portals.

For Liechtenstein’s royal family, collecting is as much a tradition as dynastic politics. They have been buying art for at least four centuries, and the 30,000-piece collection ranks among the greatest accumulations of Western artworks ever assembled. It includes   1,600 paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens,Van Dyck, Hals, and Brueghel, as well as one of Europe’s largest hoards of armor, sculpture, furniture and porcelain. Most works are kept out of public view in the castle overlooking the capital of Vaduz (5,000 residents in a country of 35,000), but one-fifth of the collection is in Vienna where the prince restored one of his family’s historic palaces as a museum.

“I certainly would not have begun to collect on my own,” the prince told me in his high-toned German, “because I didn’t really understand much about it and it didn’t terribly interest me. But one naturally grew up with it and I must say I enjoyed it, so I actually grew into the task.”

Since 1977, he has acquired 700 paintings, sculptures, furniture and decorative art pieces. These include a portrait by Hals and the Badminton Cabinet, a magnificent 18th century inlaid Florentine chest which became the world’s costliest piece of furniture when the prince paid $36 million for it in 2004. More recently, he has been amassing Biedermeier and neo-classical works to be displayed in another restored Vienna palace where he has just built a three-story, state-of-the-art, subterranean storeroom. The prince employs three restorers in Vienna and another three at Vaduz Castle to maintain the collection.

Renaissance bronzes, still lifes from the Dutch Golden Age, and Boulle furniture: these, he says, are his “weakness.” But despite having grown up surrounded by masterpieces, he claims no great knowledge of art history and asked his collections director, Johann Kräftner, to join us as we talked in his vaulted office. A 17th century bronze, Christ in Distress by Adriaen de Fries, stood watch nearby, and two landscapes hung over his desk. When I asked who painted them, Kräftner, rather than the prince, responded that they were by Jean-Baptiste Pillemont, who helped decorate Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon in the 1770s. “I’m glad he’s here because if you’d asked me I wouldn’t know,” said the prince.

Kräftner, an Austrian trained as an architect and also studied art history, and a three-member advisory council guide the prince on purchases, although the monarch has the final say. “He is not a connoisseur,” council member Reinhold Baumstark told me later, “but rather an enthusiast. Amateur is a wonderful word to describe him.” Baumstark, who was director of the princely collections before becoming head of the Bavarian State Painting Collections, a post from which he is now retired, added: “He is smart enough to rely on his experts.”

 “He makes very spontaneous decisions when he buys,” said Kräftner. “He’s sometimes unpredictable. It’s a private collection and it’s his personal decision. It’s the last remaining collection of this dimension in private hands.” Queen Elizabeth’s may be larger, but she does not personally own it, she holds it in trust as monarch for the British nation and her successors.

Prince Hans-Adam also has far more power as head of state than the Queen of England, having used a 2003 constitutional referendum to expand leverage over parliament and the courts. The prince said that he had seen the Queen’s collection when he and his parents were guests in the private rooms. He added that he visits museums “occasionally but not very often.”

After graduating from Switzerland’s University of St. Gallen in 1969 with a degree in management and economics, Hans-Adam successfully revitalized the family fortune when his father, Prince Franz Josef II, was in financial straits. Until World War Two, the family owned properties spread around Central Europe, but the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia led to confiscation of some 25 palaces and castles in Bohemia and Moravia.

The family had never lived in Liechtenstein before 1938, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria. Fears that Hitler’s next move might be to gobble up the principality prompted Franz Josef to move into Vaduz Castle. In the war’s chaotic last days, the family managed to smuggle most of its art to Vaduz from Vienna and storehouses elsewhere in Austria. But the loss of real estate resulted in a steep drop in income, forcing Franz Josef to sell many paintings, including a Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 1967.

“It pained my father to have to sell pictures, and he always dreamed to buy things back,” the prince said. “After I had reorganized the family business and we were profitable, I suggested to him that we buy art again. That was certainly the original catalyst for my collecting. The second reason for me was also – and here the businessman plays a role – that I saw that over time art was not a bad investment and was mobile. My father was unable to transport the real estate from Czechoslovakia to Vaduz, or from Vienna to here, but art could be transported.”
Would he show me his favorite paintings? “I would not say I have a favorite painter, but rather there are pictures that I like very much.” As we walked through the castle, the prince switched on lights to illuminate Rubens’s “Landscape with Milkmaids and Cows” (after 1616); Hans Mielich’s 1557 full-length portrait of Ladislaus von Fraunberg, Count of Haag, with a pet leopard; Flemish tapestries; majolica porcelain; pietra dura inlaid chests; and countless ancestral portraits.

The prince’s own image is displayed all over tiny Liechtenstein, in a formal photograph by Anthony Buckley & Constantine, photographers by appointment to Queen Elizabeth II. I asked if he’d ever considered having a portrait painted. “No. I couldn’t sit for so long,” he said. Even for the late Lucian Freud? “No,” the prince said firmly.

Perhaps not surprisingly, nothing in the collection was created after 1870. “I was never interested in modern art,” the prince said. “My father who was much more talented and interested in art might have started a collection of modern art, but I am neither interested nor talented. For me, and this is perhaps my excuse, it’s a mirror of our age. When I look at the 20th century, it was one of the cruelest periods of human history: wars and concentration camps, persecution; so many people killed in the most atrocious way. I see it all reflected there and I’m glad that we have left the 20th century behind.”

The 21st century, too, seemed at bay beyond the castle’s thick walls when we entered the prince’s personal living area, with beamed ceilings and linen-upholstered sofas. In the wood-paneled dining room, which looks out at the snow-capped Alps, the table was encircled by Dutch still lifes, including an extraordinary one by Frans Snyders, depicting piles of fruits, crustaceans and other delicacies.

The prince and his wife, Princess Marie, have decorated the adjacent living room with a stunningly direct and simple portrait by the 15th century French painter Jean Fouquet, along with works by Austrian Biedermeier artists Carl Schindler, Franz Eybl and Josef Rebell. The latter’s arcadian scene of the Amalfi Coast hangs near the room’s one visible concession to modernity, a medium-size flat screen television. “That’s my modern art,” said the prince.

Hans-Adam elaborated on his purchases of early 19th century Biedermeier pieces. “I saw that the prices for Biedermeier art works were then very reasonable when we were starting to buy them. One got very beautiful pictures for low prices. It wasn’t so fashionable and one could get good deals for pictures of top quality. Naturally it was more difficult to do this for earlier periods of art. Unfortunately, prices have now risen substantially.”

Last year, the prince took a hard-nosed budgetary move to limit visits to the Liechtenstein Museum, which opened in 2004 in the family’s former summer palace in Vienna. “We had hoped that a greater part of the costs would be covered by the entrance price,” he said, “but the visitor figures were simply very modest.” Some 45,000 visited annually in the past few years, but more were needed to break even. It was also difficult to compete with Vienna’s panoply of art showcases, including the Kunsthistorisches, the Belvedere, the Albertina and the Museum Quarter, particularly since the palace is located outside the city’s historic core.

Today, the museum is only open for group visits and rental as an event space. Similar terms will apply when a $120 million restoration of the family’s other palace, in the city center, is completed next year. It will house apartments for the prince and offices for his family-owned bank, LGT, which uses images from the collection on its marketing materials with the motto: “Investing like the Prince.”

Business interests also motivate traveling exhibitions from the collection; shows are scheduled in Tokyo, Singapore, Beijing and Shanghai. These coincide with expansion of LGT’s Asian operations, and Hans-Adam candidly states that the collection serves personal political and financial ends — since this is, after all, in keeping with dynastic tradition. His father loaned 350 works for exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1985-86, a move intended to enhance national prestige just as Liechtenstein prepared its bid for membership in the United Nations. “It’s naturally good public relations for the family but also for the country,” the prince said. “It’s advantageous for the political as well as the economic side.”

The prince wields art to express political displeasure as well. In 2008, he angrily canceled plans for an exhibit in Germany and now refuses to show any works there, after German tax authorities purchased stolen data on account holders at a division of the LGT Group. That forced Liechtenstein, long condemned as an uncooperative haven for tax evaders and money launderers, to liberalize its financial secrecy laws at considerable cost to the country and the royal family.

In recent years, the prince has auctioned works deemed superfluous. Having restored the collection’s luster, he said: “I see my mission as largely completed. I consider it a little like a portfolio where one will shift things around a bit. We’ll buy things and sell other things that don’t really fit in or don’t have sufficient quality so that we can buy things by the same artist that are better. But I would say that this expansion phase, in which a lot was invested over decades and when quite a large part of our surplus cash flowed into this collecting activity, will not be on the same scale as in recent years. “

Of the acquisitions decrease, advisor Baumstarck told me, “This is not due to financial considerations. The family gets richer every year, but the collection’s very dramatic growth process will slow.  He wants to scale it back to a more normal level.”

As to whether his 43-year-old heir shared his keenness for collecting, the prince said simply, “Alois is interested.” Since 2004, Hans-Adam has turned day-to-day governmental decisions over to Prince Alois, who received a law degree from the University of Salzburg after attending Sandhurst, the British royal military academy. But Hans-Adam will continue to exercise personal control over the art collection for the foreseeable future.

Summing up his own management of the treasure trove, the prince concluded with an air of quiet satisfaction, “I have done what I considered to be my duty.”