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Europe’s greatest museum buyer explains the strategy behind his acquisitions

The Prince of Liechtenstein explains 'Why I have become a great collector'

London

In June we revealed that Liechtenstein, Europe’s smallest country, is now its biggest museum buyer. Although figures are not publicly available, we reported that the head of state, His Serene Highness Prince Hans-Adam II, now spends tens of millions of euros a year on art for his museum, which is located not in his own capital Vaduz, but 650 kilometres away in Vienna.

The Prince has agreed to be interviewed by The Art Newspaper. He tells us about his decision to develop the family’s collection, stressing that he is strongly motivated by “tradition”, but he also points out that it is “good business policy to invest surplus cash”.

The story of Liechtenstein’s princely treasures is extraordinary. After World War II, the family began to sell off major works of art, but now the collection is being rebuilt on an ambitious scale.

Prince Hans-Adam II’s wealth comes from ownership of Liechtenstein Global Trust (LGT). Operating under the slogan “Invest like the Prince”, LGT now manages assets of SwFr 100bn ($84bn) (profits for the first half of this year were SwFr136m).

Prince Hans-Adam II has reversed the policy of his father, Franz Josef II, of selling off works, which had culminated in the sale of Leonardo’s Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci to Washington’s National Gallery of Art in 1967; although the price was never disclosed, it was then the most expensive painting ever sold. Recent acquisitions include the Badminton Cabinet (bought at Christie’s for £19m), sculptures by Algardi and Legros, and paintings by Waldmüller and Hans von Aachen.

Prince Hans-Adam II opened his museum in Vienna in 2004, in one of the family properties, the Garden Palace, displaying many of the masterpieces of his collection. Prince Hans-Adam II told us in written responses to our questions that he now plans to open a second museum in Vienna, on one floor of his City Palace, in the appropriately named Bankgasse.

The Art Newspaper: Your Serene Highness, what made you decide to adopt an active acquisition policy for the Liechtenstein Museum?

Prince Hans-Adam II: I have been born into a family with a long history. I believe one should follow the family traditions as long as they make sense in today’s world and as long as one can afford them.

After I had reorganised and rebuilt the family business, I suggested to my father that I should resume the family tradition of acquiring art as the Reigning Princes had done for centuries. Besides being a family tradition, I was also convinced that it was a good business policy to invest surplus cash into our family collection.

TAN: Why was it that works from the collection were sold off from the late 1940s to the 1960s? And what have been the changes in the circumstances of the collection since then?

Prince Hans-Adam II: About 80% to 90% of the family business was lost through World War II and later expropriations by the socialist governments of Eastern Europe. My father and his brothers tried to rebuild the family business after World War II, but were not very successful. Therefore my father had to sell part of the family art collection.

My father gave me the name Hans-Adam because one of our ancestors, Prince Hans-Adam I, called “Hans-Adam the Rich”, was a very successful businessman in the 17th century. He rebuilt the family business after the Thirty Years’ War and was an important art collector.

I was told to study business and to rebuild the family business, which I did.

TAN: What role do you play over acquisitions?

Prince Hans-Adam II: I have to agree to each acquisition. Sometimes I do not like the piece or I think the price is too high, and sometimes I like the piece and I would pay a very high price, but I am not an art expert myself. Therefore I am very glad to have an excellent advisory board, which usually succeeds in convincing me to take the right decision.

TAN: Are there artists or periods that you would like to see better represented in the collection?

Prince Hans-Adam II: My goal has been whenever possible to buy back good pieces which had been in the family collection. If this is not possible, because they are in another museum, then I try to buy good pieces of the same artist or period.

TAN: Obviously you have close links with Vienna, but what made you decide to establish the museum there, rather than in Vaduz?

Prince Hans-Adam II: Two reasons. One reason was again family tradition. At the beginning of the 19th century, part of the art collection was put into the Garden Palace and opened to the public; it was to my knowledge the first museum in Vienna open to visitors. My father had to close down the museum after Austria became part of the Third Reich in 1938.

He had always hoped that one day he might be able to reopen the museum, but the Austrian state had leased the Garden Palace and used it as a museum for modern art. About ten years ago, the Austrian state decided to build a new centre for modern art in Vienna, and I was able to take back the Garden Palace to restore it and to again show part of the family collection to the public.

Another reason was that in the late 1960s there was a project for a large museum in Vaduz to be set up by the state of Liechtenstein and the city of Vaduz, but it was rejected in a popular vote. The Kunstmuseum which was built in Vaduz a few years ago is smaller and is mainly for the art collection of the state of Liechtenstein.

TAN: What are your plans for opening the City Palace in the Bankgasse, in Vienna? What will you show there and when do you hope it will open?

Prince Hans-Adam II: The major part of the City Palace was rented out for offices. Now we plan to restore the whole palace. After the restoration, the office space will be used by our bank, another part will again be used by family and one floor might be used as a museum.

We will probably show 19th-century art there and perhaps a part of the large arms collection, but as we are still in the planning stage it is difficult to give more details.

TAN: What is your involvement in the Kunstmuseum in Vaduz? And what role would you like it to have in showcasing the Princely Collection?

Prince Hans-Adam II: I am not involved in the Kunstmuseum in Vaduz. We only show small exhibitions there from our collection.

TAN: What are your personal tastes in the visual arts? And how have your tastes evolved?

Prince Hans-Adam II: As a young person I was not interested in art and I would have never started an art collection. But I saw it as my duty towards the family to look after the art collection and now I like the visual arts from the 14th century to the 19th century.

TAN: What role would you like to see Liechtenstein play in the international art scene?

Prince Hans-Adam II: I think one has to make the distinction between the state of Liechtenstein and the Liechtenstein family. For the state, it is up to the parliament and the people of Liechtenstein whether they want to use taxpayers’ money to play a role in the international art scene. As for the Liechtenstein family, I believe that my successors as Reigning Princes will also follow our tradition and add to the art collection, and show it to the public.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘'Why I have become a great collector'