Director Johann Kräftner runs the Princely Collections, which include not only precious works of art, but also magnificently restored buildings. On a tour through the splendid Liechtenstein City Palace in the heart of Vienna, we got to know the passionate art collector, architect and author from a very personal side.
Johann Kräftner cannot help it. When he looks at the latest addition to the Princely Collections, his smile beams for a moment. The precious bust is more than 500 years old and depicts Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, who wrote part of his famous “Self-Reflections” at the Vindobona military camp in the second century AD. And this is where everything comes full circle. This ancient Roman settlement was later to become Vienna, where we are now afforded an exclusive first look at this fire-gilded bronze bust in the art depot of the Liechtenstein City Palace in the third millennium AD. It was just before Christmas 2016 when the deal with a London art dealer was concluded. It was not until summer 2017 that the widely travelled Marcus Aurelius would be first exhibited publicly during a presentation of part of the Princely Collections. Prince Karl I had already laid the cornerstone for this collection at the start of the seventeenth century. Four decades later, the exhibit would relocate from the underground storage vault in the inner city to the Liechtenstein Garden Palace in the Rossau district of Vienna.
The architect as an art-loving strategist
It was through the restoration of these two baroque palaces almost 20 years ago that Johann Kräftner (born in 1951) developed a bond with the princely family. He studied architecture with a focus on art history and monument preservation in Vienna and taught at the University of Technology until 1998. After having simultaneously conceived and designed a number of exhibitions in Europe, Kräftner’s first major assignment for Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein was the artistic direction of a renovation of the Garden Palace, which was in dire need of renovation at the time.
The renovation of the Liechtenstein City Palace took more than five years – a baroque gem in Vienna’s inner city whose reopening four years ago was met with great interest from art-loving experts and the media.
A thousand items purchased
The noble ancestors of the princely house started to make targeted acquisitions centuries earlier. Some treasures, take the “Ginevra de’ Benci” by Leonardo da Vinci for example, had to be sold as a result of the crisis following the Second World War. But most of the painful losses have long since been compensated, with almost a thousand items purchased since 1977 – from porcelain cups to Roentgen furniture, from Rubens’s oil sketches to the restored Biedermeier paintings of Friedrich von Amerling. The collections of the Prince of Liechtenstein comprise five centuries’ worth of major works of European art and are among some of the world’s most important private collections. They date back to the seventeenth century and are rooted in the baroque ideal of art-loving princely patronage. The Liechtenstein family fostered this ideal consistently for generations, adding to their portfolio methodically. It is Kräftner’s job to continue this collection work through an active acquisition policy.
However, director Kräftner is concerned not only with extending the collection, but also with clearing it. Because the princely family does not intend to set up any art depots other than the huge ones in Vienna and Vaduz with Fort-Knox-level security, more space always has to be created. Over the century, a few things have tumbled into the collection that, while extremely precious, do not really fit in thematically with the concept. And so, Kräftner has already initiated two internationally renowned auctions, run by Sotheby’s London and Christie’s Amsterdam.
Socially critical Biedermeier painters
Whoever is lucky enough to be taken on a tour through the staterooms of the City Palace by Johann Kräftner will meet an art expert who has undoubtedly found his calling in life. He happily brings paintings to life by explaining their uniqueness so logically that listeners cannot help but understand the Biedermeier painter Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller’s social criticism. If you look at “The Interrupted Pilgrimage” from 1853, you will see a near photorealistic rendering of a scene in which a malnourished pilgrim collapses. Barefoot and wrapped in shabby clothing, she sits on the naked ground, held up by men and women tending to her.
The type of art a person is prepared to spend money on says a lot about that person. The values and priorities of the current generation of the princely family clearly coincide with those of their ancestors, which might explain why they have not invested in art from the twentieth and twenty-first century. The director of the Princely Collections continually builds bridges between the past and the present in his tours. Laughing, he opens the side door of a music box that he refers to as a “jukebox from 1793”, listening to the ringing tones with rapt attention. Right next to it is a Biedermeier desk that he introduces as the “first item of designer furniture”, designed and built in 1825 by “ébéniste” (cabinetmaker) and painter Josef Franz Danhauser.
Anniversaries, tours and special exhibitions
Items on loan are shortly set to return from Bern. In 2018, chests full of objects from the Princely Collections were flown to Seoul for a major exhibition in the Palace Museum. The specialist art transportation companies will be on the move between Vienna, Vaduz and the National Galleries of the USA and Canada, before the focus moves in 2019 to “300 Years of the Principality of Liechtenstein”. A series of major exhibitions dedicated to this theme are to be held in the Vienna Albertina Museum and in Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein in Vaduz. A year later, in 2020, there are plans for an exhibition tour of North America, taking place in Washington, Ottawa and Houston. And in 2021, LGT Bank will celebrate its 100-year anniversary with events in major museums throughout the world. In addition to all these activities, Kräftner continues to write impressive art books dedicated to the Princely Collections and the two baroque palaces.
The tour ends with another surprise. Kräftner leads the way to the first basement floor, where perfectly air-conditioned six-metre-high halls await visitors. There shines a golden Marcus Aurelius waiting to see the light of day again. Below it are two more depot floors, each four metres high. Had the commander travelled through time to this City Palace almost two thousand years ago, he would have marvelled at the fact that buildings now penetrate just as deep below the ground as they tower above it.