CONCEPTUAL FINE ARTS

“To buy a piece of art you need time”: an interview with Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein


Stefano Pirovano  -  October 2, 2015

Gathering together approximately 1700 paintings and 500 sculptures and covering more than 500 of European history, the art collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein, at the moment the 6th richest monarch in the world, is the main one in Europe in private hands, including that of Queen Elisabeth II of England, which is also extraordinary, but is regulated by UK Constitution (hence it is not fully private). Turned 70 this year, H.S.H. Prince Hans-Adam II welcomed us at the Vaduz castle to talk about his 40-year-long experience of art collecting, always by some very wise rules, as you will learn.

Why are you not interested in contemporary art?

I have neither the talent nor do I like contemporary art with very few exceptions. Perhaps one of my successors will have more talent and contemporary art might then look different.

Then, is it wiser to get passionate about pieces that have already lasted through the centuries?

In my case I would say that collecting has been a job, more than a passion. At the end of the 60s my father asked me to rebuild the family business, thus including the art collection. At the end of World War II quite a lot of it was either destroyed, or confiscated by the Communists in Czechoslovakia, or sold out of necessity. Personally, I am more interested in physics and science. If my father hadn’t given me this task, I don’t think I would have ever started to collect at all.

As a collector, have you taken advantage of having a precise target?

Yes, I do think so. In order to fill the gaps due to the losses and sales, I’ve tried to buy back from private dealers or museums, when possible, the pieces we once owned. I’ve also bought art on the market, from art dealers and auction houses. That has been my job up to now, the job my father asked me to do.

Do you mean that you will give up collecting now?

Of course there are things that I would like buy and that are not on the market at the moment, but I think that more or less I’ve restored the collection as it was before World War II. So I am not going to invest much more in fine arts.

How has your approach to fine arts changed after 700 pieces bought in half of a century?

I grew up surrounded by artworks and I do like art, but I am still convinced that I’m not particularly gifted for that, unlike my wife, for instance, or my father.

So how could you collect so many masterpieces?

My first priority as a collector was to have storage for properly conserving the artworks, and it was quite an investment, my first one in art indeed. Then I asked the advice of experts and scholars. Now we have an acquisition board and a team of restorers that evaluate the pieces that appear on the market and the offers we constantly receive from dealers and other collectors too. And when we agree on a certain piece, we go ahead with the negotiation. Therefore I still consider myself an amateur, but who has however the support of a highly qualified team.

Which advice would you give to a young collector?

I don’t think I’m in the position to give any advice. However, I would just say to always be careful and to look for the help of experts. Perhaps it would also be useful to regard your collection as a sort of portfolio investments. In this way, you will be forced to take into consideration also factors which may not be directly connected to the quality of the artwork – as for instance the capability of the piece to keep its financial value in time.

You stated that fine arts can be a good investment, but the best profit in the past 20 years have actually been made with contemporary art, that you are not very fond of.

Prices in contemporary art can be manipulated by dealers and auction houses. It is very likely that after a few decades those pieces might collapse, as I said, and so might their prices. It follows that certain works of art which in a certain period of time have been purchased for a lot of money, just a few years after can’t even find a buyer.

What do you remember of the sale of the Portrait of Ginevra Benci by Leonardo once in your collection?

Not much, it was one of the many pieces of art which was sold. It was in a storage room here in the Castle of Vaduz. In 1945, when the Red Army was approaching Czechoslovakia, where the 80% of my family’s assets were located, my father brought pieces of our art collection to some safe storage facilities near Vienna and near Salzburg. The Leonardo’s was among the works that my father personally carried in his car.

And the Leonardo’s was bought by the National Gallery in Washington. Was there any diplomatic reason in the background? Was perhaps a way to pay a tribute to the United States?

No, we were just looking for the best buyer, and at that time 5 million US dollars was indeed the highest price ever paid for an artwork.

Do you think is quantitative easing responsible for the extraordinary soaring prices on the art market?

In recent years a lot of money has been printed by the central banks, and this liquidity had to go somewhere. Part of this money went to art, especially to contemporary art. So the prices, as those of the real estate for instance, went up. However, when this liquidity will take a new path for one reason or another, the prices are bound to collapse again. Also in the past the prices of art had been swinging up and down. When my ancestor bought the Rubens’ paintings currently in our collection the prices for this master were extremely high, and his paintings were in high demand. Then Rubens went out of fashion and the prices dropped but regained its value later on.

Do you attend art fairs?

No, never. To buy a piece of art you need time. The various aspects of the work need to be checked very carefully, and I have an advisory board for that. Moreover, we receive offers from private people and art dealers anyway. Our collection ranges from bronzes and porcelains to furniture, that is why we need specialists.

Do you like visiting museums?

Yes, I do. Generally, I visit those museums which exhibit pieces somehow related to our collection.

Which are the private collections that you prefer?

I have visited the private collection of the Queen of England, they have beautiful artworks.

You restored the Garden Palace in Vienna to exhibit your collection. But then you have changed your mind.

The Garden Palace in Vienna is still used to exhibit the collection. However, we have completely changed the way it can be visited. The collection can only be seen by a guided tour, either specially booked or on every second Friday afternoon. This arrangement is economically advantageous and gives us more flexibility in renting the Garden Palace for events.

And now some of the masterpieces in your collection will to travel to the Far East. Could you tell us why?

There have been several exhibitions of the collection in the Far East in the last years. These exhibitions have allowed us to raise the general awareness about Liechtenstein in the region, particularly among politicians and business leaders. In addition, LGT could sponsor these exhibitions which are attractive marketing tools and hosting platforms for LGT.

Renaissance old masters were exported to USA, South America and Asia at the time they were growing as new economic powers. When do you think we will see the first exhibition in Africa?

I do not know when African museums and transports will be ready for that.