These days, paintings by the famous Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens boast price tags that range in the millions of dollars. H.S.H. Prince Philipp von und zu Liechtenstein discloses that his family likely acquired Rubens’ Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens in the 18th century, in return for a horse.

Such a trade was probably the equivalent of swopping for a Ferrari, the 66-year-old royal explains laughingly, in a recent interview with The Peak. The exchange may seem incomprehensible on today’s terms, but Prince Philipp, dressed in a smart, grey business suit, is quick to point out that Liechtenstein was then known for its valuable steeds.

He is in Singapore to introduce Princely Treasures from the House of Liechtenstein – of which Clara Serena is a part. The exhibition, now touring Japan, will be held at the National Museum of Singapore starting later this month.

The five-year-old in the painting is Rubens’ daughter. For an artist often commissioned to paint portraits of the most distinguished nobles of the 17th century – French royal Louis XIII and Spain’s monarch Philip IV, to name a few – it’s this portrait of a common child that remains one of his most enduring works.

It’s one of several dozen masterpieces in a collection that includes paintings, graphics, prints, tapestries, sculptures and decorative objects that have been curated from the royal family’s trove of about 1,700 paintings and thousands of decorative objects and furniture.

Significant works by important Flemish artists like Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, as well as those by renowned European masters such as Raphael and Lucas Cranach the Elder, will be showcased to celebrate the High Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-classical and Biedermeier periods that span the late 15th century to the mid-19th century.

The works characterise the European way of articulating authority, power and wealth by the ruling houses.

(Lubeck 1579- 1620 Augsburg) Automaton Drinking Vessel with Clockwork Mechanism, c1610-1612; silver, gilt 15 x 10 x 7cm.
(Lubeck 1579- 1620 Augsburg) Automaton Drinking Vessel with Clockwork Mechanism, c1610-1612; silver, gilt 15 x 10 x 7cm.

“The first serious collector was Prince Karl I (1569-1627), who started collecting around 1600 at the court of Rudolf II in Prague,” Prince Philipp says.

“The family’s relationship with art has not changed since the 17th century. Every prince collected and lived with these pieces, and took care of them. Some more, some less,” he says.

“Some, like Prince Johann Adam Andreas I (1657-1712), accumulated debts when they bought pieces of art like the Decius Mus Cycle. In some periods, like the time after World War II, the family could survive only by selling art pieces for a short period.”

Today, it is Prince Philipp’s older brother, the H.S.H. Prince Hans-Adam II von und zu Liechtenstein, the reigning prince of the Central European principality, who oversees The Princely Collections in Vaduz and Vienna with his advisory board.

Since the 1970s, Prince Hans-Adam II has been striving to buy back some of the art that were sold, including Portrait of a Lady, painted by Bernardino Zaganelli da Cotignola circa 1500 and the early 18th-century Bouquet of Flowers in an Urn by Jan van Huysum.

(Siegen 1577- 1640 Antwerp) Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens, c1616; oil on canvas, mounted on a wooden panel 37 x 27cm.
(Siegen 1577- 1640 Antwerp) Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens, c1616; oil on canvas, mounted on a wooden panel 37 x 27cm.

One challenge has been tracing those paintings on the art market, says Magistrate Alexandra Hanzl, deputy director and curator of The Princely Collections. Also, most of them now belong to museums.

While the highlight of the Princely Treasures exhibition is undeniably Clara Serena, there are several other art pieces that are equally important.

One is the oldest-dated work in the show, Raphael’s Portrait of a Man circa 1502-1504, and the other is Joachim Fries’ Automaton Drinking Vessel with Clockwork Mechanism, 1610-1612. Such an object was typically used in a drinking game called Trinkspiel. When the machine stopped in front of a guest, he or she would remove the mounted figure, which is a vessel, and drink from it.

Over the past five centuries, the works of art accumulated by the princes of Liechtenstein have endured time, wars and the economic highs and lows of the royal family. “The arts has always been an important subject for the princely family,” Prince Philipp says.

In the last decade, the royal family has invested heavily in new frames for many of the paintings. Of the attention paid to their conservation, Prince Philipp says: “No other collection in the world can show paintings and other works of art in such mint condition.”