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The Prince of Liechtenstein is putting his paintings on permanent public display from March

The greatest royal collection after Britain’s—and still buying

Vienna

The Liechtenstein princely collection is to go on display, for the first time for more than 60 years. Over 250 paintings and sculptures will be shown in the newly restored Liechtenstein Garden Palace in Vienna, which opens on 28 March. This follows an agreement between Prince Hans-Adam II and the Austrian government that resolves a dispute dating back to World War II, when the collection was smuggled out of Nazi Germany to the family’s castle in Vaduz.

Although the Liechtenstein paintings are not well known internationally, they represent the world’s greatest royal collection after that of Britain. Altogether it comprises 1,500 pictures assembled over nearly four centuries. Works range from the early Renaissance to Austrian Romanticism, with outstanding works by Breughel, Cranach, Hals, Raphael, Rembrandt, Reni and Van Dyck; there are no fewer than 30 Rubens, including the Death of Decius Cycle. The prince also has a magnificent sculpture collection, as well as pietra dura, porcelain, enamels, ivories, arms, tapestries and furniture.

Until shortly before World War II, much of the collection was in Vienna, where the family had its main residence (rather than the State of Liechtenstein). Since 1807 many of the pictures had been on public display in Vienna’s Liechtenstein Garden Palace. But works of art were also scattered in dozens of palaces throughout Austria, Moravia, Bohemia and Silesia.

Soon after the 1938 Anschluss, when Austria was merged into Germany, the Liechtenstein Collection was “listed” by the Nazi government, prohibiting its export.

As the war went against the Nazis, the Liechtenstein family feared their collection would be looted by the advancing Red Army. In March 1945, when Soviet forces were approaching Vienna, Prince Regent Franz Josef II moved virtually all his works of art to Germany. They were secretly sent to the palace of the Swedish Count Bernadotte, on the Isle of Mainau in Lake Constance. Following the Anschluss, Austria had become part of the German Reich, so there were no export restrictions.

Franz Josef II became increasingly concerned about the safety of his collection and he successfully smuggled most of it out of Germany into Switzerland. The Nazis had granted approval to export a number of lesser pictures, but the descriptions in the authorisation documents were loosely worded and the papers were instead used to take out all the works. Once the paintings reached Switzerland, they were moved to Liechtenstein, which maintained its neutrality in the war and remained unoccupied.

After the war, the Austrian government argued that the Liechtenstein pictures were “listed” and had been illegally exported. It therefore demanded that they be returned. Franz Josef II never accepted the listing, pointing out that in the 1930s the works had been dispersed over dozens of his palaces in several countries. It therefore did not represent a “collection”, which had to be in a single location. After the war, the prince kept most of his paintings in store in Vaduz, with some hung in his palace, to avoid a legal battle with Austria.

This dispute with Austria and internal problems within Liechtenstein rumbled on for over half a century. Twenty years ago Franz Josef II wanted to build a museum in Vaduz, but the electorate voted against the scheme on the grounds that it would attract too many visitors to the tiny capital (population 5,000). The family therefore turned their attention to Vienna, but this raised the old legal row over the 1945 export.

This issue was finally resolved with an agreement in April 2001 between the Austrian government and the Liechtenstein head of State, Prince Hans-Adam II. Under the deal, the Austrian authorities dropped their objections to the 1945 export of the paintings, with an understanding that the highlights of the collection would be brought back to Vienna for display. Obviously the new museum will be a major tourist attraction for the Austrian capital.

The museum is being established in the Liechtenstein Garden Palace, built around 1700 and just to the north of the city’s Ringstrasse. From 1979-2000 the palace had been rented out as the temporary home of Vienna’s Museum of Modern Art, for post-1945 art. But with the recent creation of Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier, the modern art moved to a new building. Restoration of the Liechtenstein Garden Palace was undertaken by Johann Kräftner, an architectural specialist who has now been appointed director of the new museum. The €20 million restoration costs have been entirely funded by the prince.

The Liechtenstein Collection has reversed its earlier practice of selling off works of art, following a series of sales after World War II. These disposals culminated in Franz Josef II’s decision to sell his magnificent Leonardo portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci to Washington’s National Gallery of Art in 1967.

Hans-Adam II is now a regular buyer on the international art market. We can identify him as the anonymous purchaser of Hals’s portrait of a man, bought for $2,920,000 at Sotheby’s New York on 23 January 2003.

Other recent purchases (see above) reflect the financial success of the princely family’s main source of wealth, their ownership of the Vaduz-based Liechtenstein Global Trust (LGT) bank.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The greatest royal collection after Britain’s—and still buying '