Secreted for 70 years in a castle in Vaduz, the Liechtenstein Collection now returns to the royal palace in Vienna where it once hung. Mary Haus takes a closer look

A lost footnote among the horrific legacies of the Third Reich's takeover of Austria in 1938 was that it closed, seemingly forever, a unique door to the cultural legacy of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Fearing for his safety and, especially, that of his Jewish wife, Prince Franz I of Liechtenstein fled the family palais in Vienna, where the Liechtensteins had lived for 200 years. He left behind more than a thousand works by the likes of Leonardo, Rubens, Van Dyck, Hals, Rembrandt, and Brueghel—one of the greatest collections of Western art ever assembled. Just before the end of World War II this collection was spirited to Liechtenstein, where it remained, largely out of view, for nearly 70 years.

Once nearly forgotten, the Baroque palace and its gardens are now fully restored and reopened—at a cost of $25 million—and the collection is installed much as it was for two centuries, in what is now the Liechtenstein Museum. The country's reigning prince, Hans-Adam II, and the museum's director, Johann Kräftner, hope to herald a new era in Vienna's cultural life. Kräftner believes that the museum will not only tell the story of Austrian art "in an international context" but will help to re-establish Vienna as "a Baroque city."

"Baroque Vienna," Kräftner laments, has been eclipsed by "Vienna 1900," a brand effectively launched in the mid eighties by a show of that title at New York's Museum of Modern Art. MoMA trustee Ronald Lauder, who partially funded the show, was ambassador to Austria during the Reagan administration. He collected and helped to popularize the work of Klimt, Schiele, and the Wiener Werkstätte, all from a period now immortalized in Lauder's popular town-house museum, the Neue Galerie. "It's a pity this is the only trademark for Vienna," Kräftner tells me when I visit him a few weeks before the Liechtenstein Museum's opening on March 28. "The Baroque period was so much more important for Vienna than the period of nineteen hundred."

Certainly, the palais is itself one of the finest examples of Baroque architecture in a city that arguably defined the Baroque as much as Rome did. The building's restrained, cream-colored façade belies the soaring, muscular lines and sumptuous plasterwork of the interior. The great Hercules Hall, named for the ceiling frescoes, is the largest secular Baroque room in all Vienna—6,000 meticulously embellished square feet. Outside, the grounds sweep behind the palais and this spring were planted with swaths of brightly colored tulips.

Kräftner, an architect, professor, and exhibition designer, began as chief architect of the renovation and was then asked by Prince Hans-Adam II to direct the museum and the family's holdings. Surrounded by a curio-cabinet selection of stones, seashells, artifacts, and jars of powdered pigment (the kind of paint originally used for the palace), he lays out the significance of the Liechtenstein family to Vienna and his plan to make its legacy essential once again.

"There were always two kinds of princely collections—public and private," he begins. "The public collections were governed by a law called fideicommissum—meaning none of the objects could be sold." Kräftner shows me the original design for the palais's portal: it displays the family coat of arms. By the time the palace and its collection were made accessible to the public, in 1807, it read—as it does today—IOH: FÜR KÜNSTLER UND KUNST ("Prince Johann I: for artists and art"). "They really were quite democratic in their ideals," he says.

And so they remained for more than 100 years. But when the Nazis took over, they declared fideicommissum null and void and all collections—public and private—theirs for the taking. By early 1945, with defeat looming, Nazi officials, who had previously prohibited the transfer of the artworks, declared that they could be moved to German territory: a castle on the tiny island of Reichenau in Lake Constance. However, only what Kräftner describes as "third-class objects" could go from there to the family's castle in Vaduz, its seat in Liechtenstein.

In February of 1945, the collection's curator, Gustav Wilhelm, loaded the masterworks from the Vienna palais onto regular passenger buses and drove them himself through a network of Nazi checkpoints and out of Austria. As Kräftner describes it, Wilhelm was in constant danger—from Allied bombs and from hijacking by disbanded German soldiers desperate to get home. Once at Reichenau, by night and at great risk, Wilhelm stole away to a sealed-off room in the castle and switched the labels on the paintings, downgrading the likes of Rembrandt and Rubens to "third class." Finally, in April, the stealthily recatalogued collection arrived in Vaduz.

After the war, 80 percent of the family's assets were located in what became Czechoslovakia and were expropriated by the Communists; their fortunes decimated, the Liechtensteins were unable to bring the collection back to Vienna. The palais sat empty until it was rented to the state for office space and then served as the city's museum of modern art from 1979 to 2000. Meanwhile, Prince Hans-Adam II (Prince Franz Josef II died in 1989) was gradually rebuilding his family's fortunes, chiefly through the LGT banking group—the primary source of the new museum's funding. Ironically, the bank was founded with the proceeds from the 1967 sale of the family's Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra da Benci, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.—one of many masterworks sold off when the family needed money.

"I kept in mind two places where the sculpture, furniture, and paintings all work together: the Galleria Borghese in Rome and the Frick Collection in New York," Kräftner says, underscoring the effect he has tried to achieve at the Liechtenstein Museum: a sense, at once, of privacy, domesticity, and grandeur.

You enter the palais through the portal and walk past an elegant outbuilding that houses the museum's two restaurants. Inside the soaring central foyer stands an enormous painted and gilt-wood state carriage. Twin staircases beckon visitors to ascend to the upper floors beneath magnificent ceiling frescoes uncovered during the recent renovations. But first they must pass through the library, an extraordinary Neoclassical interior that was moved, with its 100,000 volumes, from another family residence in the city (the next restoration project on Kräftner's agenda), a space that allows visitors to leave, as Kräftner puts it, "the noise of the world outside."

The first suite of galleries on the upper floors Kräftner has set aside for temporary exhibitions of Austrian art. In the remaining galleries, martyrs, generals, banquet scenes, and landscapes by Hals, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Raphael hang in dizzying profusion; the paintings are set off by credenzas, inlaid pietra dura tables, and other period furnishings.

Rubens is the artist who in many ways defines the museum, partly because the family collected so many of his lush, sweeping canvases—30 still remain in the collection—and partly because his work is the painterly counterpart of the building's architecture. There is an entire room devoted to one of Rubens's most famous epics, the Decius Mus cycle, which depicts the sacrifice of three Roman consuls in service of the empire.

As part of his plan to promote the Baroque glory of Vienna, Kräftner has been roving the world buying things, spending, by his estimate, some $12 million to $25 million a year on paintings, porcelain, sculpture, and furniture. Some of these objects he feels he is simply returning to Vienna, recouping the city's former glory one purchase at a time. A stunning Frans Hals portrait, with the impatient brushwork of a Manet, which had been expropriated from the Rothschilds and then hung in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, was restored to the family in 1998, then sold by them—and bought by Kräftner—at Sotheby's New York last winter. Another recent purchase is an extraordinary collection of 18th-century porcelain, confiscated by the Nazis from the Bloch-Bauer family, returned to their descendants, and bought by Kräftner—who proudly showed me a turn-of-the-century catalogue designed by Josef Hoffmann. He plans to include the collection in a show of Viennese Baroque and Neoclassical porcelain.

In fact, few noble or Jewish families managed to retain their art collections through both wars. The Liechtensteins were among the lucky ones. Now, Kräftner and the prince have forged alliances with some of those same families, convincing them of the value of opening their houses to the public so that their equally impressive riches can be viewed on a combination entry ticket with the museum. He has also persuaded his famously competitive colleagues to stage, next winter, a suite of Rubens exhibitions in Vienna's museums. And he strongly believes that the Baroque should, and can, be modern. "My dream is to have a Vivienne Westwood show—imagine those fantastic clothes, here! Baroque, but on the other hand, up-to-date." And to prove that the museum can once again be what it was, he intends to hold a perpetual open house. "I want to give people the chance to come in, relax, stroll around the gardens, hear chamber concerts, go to one of our restaurants," he says. "I want a living museum." ¼

1 Fürstengasse; 43-1/3195-7670, ("Rubens in Vienna" is on view from December 5, 2004, through February 27, 2005.)