VIENNA — For almost seven decades, the paintings sat in darkness, locked away in warehouses in Vaduz, Liechtenstein. Occasionally, some of the works were pulled out for small, temporary exhibitions, but mostly the Liechtenstein royal family's glorious collection of Baroque masterpieces was housed in the European version of Shurgard Storage.
Until late last month, that is.
The so-called Princely Collection, sealed up in 1938 and moved out of the country in 1944 to protect it from Nazi looting, returned home to Vienna in March. The collection, which includes works by Raphael, Anthony van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, and Rembrandt, will once again take up residence in the newly refurbished Liechtenstein Palace.
The Liechtenstein Museum is the sole collection among Vienna's 160 museums devoted completely to the Baroque period. Museum curators hope that the return of the pieces will remind Austrians that it was the Baroque, with its art, architecture, and music, that transformed Vienna from a small medieval outpost into an international capital.
"Judging from the interest that has been shown in the reopening, I would say that we are going to be successful," says museum director Johann Kräftner. "It is going to develop into a new art center here in Vienna."
Readying the Liechtenstein Museum for visitors has been a major undertaking - especially since it's one of only a few museums in Europe that is entirely privately run and funded. Renovation of the Liechtenstein Palace and gardens, long rented out for other uses, totaled a princely sum of 23 million euro ($28.3 million).
But the construction work did yield a surprise bonus. A number of beautiful ceiling frescoes (circa 1705-1708) by Johann Michael Rottmayr were rediscovered underneath a stucco and canvas covering that had been installed in 1819 to combat leakage. Once the renewal work on the frescoes is completed next year, the building will be almost as much of an attraction as the paintings it holds.
The museum's highlight is the display of the "Decius Mus" cycle - a series of eight paintings by Rubens created between 1616 and 1617.
Dr. Kräftner admits that the city is still very closely identified with Art Nouveau and other modern genres, but he hopes the museum's 16th- to 18th-century masterpieces will illuminate Austria's forgotten cultural history. "In the last few decades," he says, "Vienna has been bound together in the popular imagination with 1900. In reality, though, the Baroque Vienna is much more important to what the city has become than the Vienna of 1900."
Given its 20th-century history, the return of the collection to Vienna is, in itself, somewhat incredible, a fact the Prince of Liechtenstein, Hans-Adam II, referred to at a press conference for the museum's opening.
"Of course parts of the collection were lost, parts were destroyed," the prince said. "It is almost a miracle that so much was saved. People courageously managed to step in and evacuate parts of the collection."
Even after World War II, there were numerous difficulties to overcome. The Liechtenstein family lost more than 80 percent of its wealth during and immediately after the war and was forced to sell a number of paintings.
Recently, the prince has begun a 15 million euro ($18.5 million) purchasing program to expand the collection and to buy back many of those paintings that were sold. Some paintings, however, are unlikely ever to return.
"We will probably never be able to get back our Leonardo," says Kräftner, referring to a painting by da Vinci. "It is now in the National Gallery in Washington."
Because of the museum's private status, the prince was also unsure whether Vienna would be able to supply the 300,000 annual visitors the project needed to survive financially, and he had considered Paris or New York as a possible home.
The site is not perfect - only about 170 of the nearly 1,600 art pieces in the collection can be displayed at once. Kräftner is hoping eventually to open a second museum to remedy the problem.
"If enough people don't end up coming to this museum," Kräftner joked, "then the rest of the collection will stay hidden away where it is, and we won't have to share it with anybody else."