Count Johann Nepomuk Wilczek (1837 - 1922), the scion of an old Polish noble family ranging back to the 12th century, was one of the most important Austrian aristocrats of his era. Legendary for his personal modesty and frugality, he was one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs of the Habsburg monarchy, owning vast estates and the second largest coal mine of the empire.
As a member of high nobility he held the office of an influential chamberlain at the Viennese court while at the same being a generous philanthropist, dedicating considerable parts of his fortune to the promotion of arts, culture and science as well as numerous social institutions. His still significant achievements include the founding of the Vienna Ambulance Company (today's rescue and patient transport service of the City of Vienna) in 1881 in the wake of the disastrous Ring Theater fire and the founding of the Vienna Rudolfinerhaus 1882 together with Theodor Billroth, the Viennese pioneer of modern surgery.
In his early years he devoted himself to archaeological, art and natural history studies and undertook several hunting trips to Africa during 1860-1870. As a honorary member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and President of the Austrian Geographical Society, Wilczek was the driving force and financier behind the first Austrian Arctic Expedition 1872 - 1874 led by Carl Weyprecht and Julius Payer. On the schooner Isbjörn he personally accompanied the expedition ship Admiral Tegetthoff from Spitsbergen to the Barents Island to establish a large depot of food and coal, shortly before the researchers’ ship became locked in pack ice under dramatic circumstances, spending two long polar winters in the ice. Today, two islands discovered in the course of the Arctic Ocean expedition carry Wilczek’s name in remembrance of the expedition’s great sponsor.
As a personal friend and supporter of the most famous artists of his time – among others the most important representative of Austrian monumental history painting Hans Makart – Wilczek founded, among other initiatives, the Vienna Society of Friends of the Fine Arts. Besides the organization and financing of numerous art exhibitions, Wilczek was also curator of the Museum of Military History in Vienna from 1894 to 1918. In addition to his great passion for art, his great personal fondness for collecting historical weapons and armor was one of the decisive triggers for the restoration of Kreuzenstein Castle, which today is the most famous monument of Wilczek’s extensive lifetime achievements.
Count Johann Nepomuk Wilczek has been honored with multiple awards, amongst others by the Academy of Sciences, by Emperor Franz Joseph who who knighted him to the Order of the Golden Fleece and by the City of Vienna, which made him an honorary citizen. Wilczek died in Vienna in 1922 and is buried in the family vault at Kreuzenstein Castle.