For all the individual marvels they contain, the great museums of the world sometimes feel a little predictable. Public institutions that mostly date to the 19th century, these encyclopedic collections reflect an art historical narrative first formulated in those years. Galleries put visitors through the paces of various national schools as one familiar periodization—Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo—yields to another. Whatever their origins in royal collections or the largess of Gilded Age tycoons, most museums strive to iron out the idiosyncrasies of individual taste, reassuring their visitors with a carefully sifted array of canonical masterpieces. Hence the appeal of smaller, less famous museums that preserve the contours of a single private collection. One such place, Vienna’s Liechtenstein Museum, is currently host to an exhibition of acquisitions by its founder, Prince Hans-Adam II, constitutional monarch of the tiny Alpine nation of Liechtenstein. The exhibition contains many unusual and beautiful works of art; it also provides a fascinating insight into the activities of one of the most important (and controversial) collectors active on the art market today.
Click here to VIEW OUR GALLERY of the Prince’s striking collection.
The exhibition The Prince as Collector,” on view through August 24, celebrates Hans-Adam’s 65th birthday with a display of roughly 140 artworks acquired during the Prince’s 20-year reign. Though the Prince himself has claimed to “prefer modern art,” this exhibit ranges from paintings by important Old Masters such as Peter Paul Rubens to sculptures, tapestries, and works of decorative art. The most-stunning among the latter is the so-called Badminton Cabinet, a masterpiece of Baroque craftsmanship acquired by the prince for over £19 million ($28 million) in 2004, then the highest sum ever paid at auction for a piece of furniture. The Badminton Cabinet is an exquisite example of the technique of pietra dura, in which thinly sliced colored stones are fitted to form inlaid images, in this case exuberant patterns of exotic birds and ripe fruits. The Prince also set an auction record for a painting of the Biedermeier period (used to refer to Central European culture from 1815 to 1848) when he paid €1.5 million ($1.8 million) for Friedrich von Amerling’s Girl in a Straw Hat in 2008 (a drop in the prince’s estimated $2 billion bucket). Work is currently under way to transform another of the prince’s Vienna palaces into a museum devoted exclusively to Biedermeier art. Often dismissed as saccharine and kitschy, this neglected period of European culture may well get a scholarly reassessment when the new museum opens next year.
Vintage newsreel of a royal Liechtenstein marriage
Hans-Adam’s individual taste provides a welcome break from the litany of blue-chip modernists who regularly make auction house headlines around the world. But his areas of focus also reflect 400 years of collecting and patronage on the part of his family, and a personal mission to recover the dynasty’s lost treasures. The princes of Liechtenstein were among the most important noblemen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with vast holdings of land across central Europe. World II and the Soviet occupation cost them much of their patrimony, and many important works of art left the collection. These included one of the greatest treasures now in the National Gallery in Washington, Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, which at the time of its sale in 1967 for $5 million was the most expensive painting in the world. Prince Hans-Adam has succeeded in restoring the family’s fortunes by establishing Liechtenstein as a lucrative tax shelter, home to the family’s bank, LGT. In the process, he’s caused significant frustration to Liechtenstein’s larger neighbors. In 2008, when it was revealed that German intelligence agents had purchased stolen data about the prince’s bank, Hans-Adam pulled all of his artworks from a planned exhibition of Biedermeier painting in Munich, resulting in the show’s cancellation. A grotesque work titled The Tax Collectors, by the 16th-century Flemish painter Quentin Massys, appears in the current exhibition and just might provide the prince’s own wry commentary on the situation. Liechtenstein recently passed an “austerity plan” that will result in budget cuts of about $4,000 per capita, exempting the prince and members of the royal family.
Despite all this, a visit to the Liechtenstein Museum, which opened in 2004, couldn’t seem further from the contemporary intrigues of international finance. A gilded carriage built for one of the prince’s 18th-century ancestors dominates the entrance hall of the beautiful Baroque palace. Upstairs, works by the Venetian landscape painter Bernardo Bellotto document the palace as it was 250 years ago, a playground for sophisticated aristocrats. There are plenty of grand paintings on display, blockbusters that would hold their own at Vienna’s world-famous Kunsthistorisches Museum. But the true highlights of the collection are intimate works. The Liechtenstein Museum is home to two of Rubens’ portraits of his children. In one, a sketch-like painting of his daughter Clara Serena, Rubens focuses his attention on the fullness of the girl’s red cheeks and stray wisps of her blond hair. She has a curious, almost challenging look, familiar to anyone who’s tried to get a smart, active child to hold still for a picture. Clara Serena died in 1623, at the age of 12—her father’s painting is all that remains to suggest the short life she lived. Before becoming enshrined in a story of historical progress, most art marked the milestones of family life, serving as an heirloom, memorial, or even legal document. In creating a monument to his own family’s collections, Prince Hans-Adam has restored some of this domestic narrative to the modern museum.
Adam Eaker is traveling Europe on the trail of Caravaggio and other great artists.