The Prince Is a Pauper
William Lobkowicz left Boston for the Czech Republic with dreams of reclaiming his family’s stolen royal fortune. Turns out, that’s been the easy part.
In the grand royal tradition, William’s ancestors had sex with each other. There’s really no getting around that. Marriage was a messy, political institution in his forebears’ day, and marrying the wrong person could mean a dilution of power. So like many noble clans, they kept things very much in the family. First cousins were lovers. The Lobkowiczes’ alliance with the ruling Hapsburgs also led to individual couplings with members of that family, who were so notoriously inbred that their faces grew asymmetric and blobby.
I ask William if he was ever disturbed by his ancestors’ sexual proclivities. But he simply launches into a minutes-long dissertation on the historic rationale for inbreeding, noting (correctly) that scientists have found no consequences of first-cousin incest. It’s a fine answer—informative, as he always is—but impersonal, fact-based, with a clean distance between himself and the subject.
William is open to all questions; at times, he seems to consider himself a living extension of his museums. But it’s gotten so that his family can resemble a brand, its history repackaged, perhaps unintentionally, as a sort of corporate narrative. He often speaks of the Lobkowicz past as “our story,” making it sound like something crafted and honed in a public relations shop, and it can seem almost coincidental that the characters in this story are of his own blood. It’s not so different from the two ice cream–making hippies in Vermont or the juice guys on Nantucket, tales that have been distilled to their simplest and most commercial telling, human skin on a corporate body. This is understandable in a way, perhaps even required. Restitution has a ring of the glamorous and the noble—a historic revision, a righting of past wrongs, erasing errors by running them in reverse. But for William, it has also meant manning a kind of historic way station, a place between his family’s past and its future. He came here to embrace the Lobkowicz legacy, but he’s so far been able only to experience it as a historian rather than an active participant, a steward of his castles rather than a ruler.
And as a steward, too, he finds himself without much room to maneuver. Owing to the castles he’s been forced to give up, he lacks the space even to display some of his family’s prized collection of artifacts. In the basement of Roudnice are rooms filled with desks and chairs, bureaus and tables, all manne
r of antique furnishings that he has yet to find a home for. The items are stacked high, sometimes to the ceiling, surrounded by blue tubs of water that moderate the humidity. Everything is painstakingly labeled, of course, marked MC2-2, MC2-3, MC2-4, and so on, but like William himself, the objects have an uncertain future. The prince and these possessions have inherited each other; their fate is mutual.
When you get right down it, William doesn’t even like being called a “prince”—and not only because it’s a spaghetti. He sees himself as a regular guy from Boston, just working to make a living. “If you want to say I’m a prince of a guy, I’ll take that as a nice compliment,” he says with a smile. “But if you get a swelled head doing anything, if it’s because you’re good at your job or you think you’re from a family or you’re better than someone, you’re looking for trouble.” There is, however, one circumstance in which he readily embraces his title: when, like his castles and brewery and artwork, doing so can be a financial asset. For a fee, he will present himself as a nobleman and meet with visitors, sit down with them, give speeches. He will play the novelty. Clemens Hoerth, the general manager of the Mandarin Oriental Prague who was at the Starbucks opening, tells me that, under a business arrangement he’s made with William, the hotel offers guests “the experience of dining with a prince.” Hoerth won’t say how much the service costs, but assures me, “It’s very well received.”
Every day at 1 p.m., Lobkowicz Palace plays host to a classical concert for tourists (tickets go for about $25). The music room is intimate, just large enough for a pianist, a violinist, and a flutist, and about a dozen rows of chairs. The performers don’t speak English, so they walk silently onto the stage, bow, and begin to play. Their music is thoughtful, sometimes mournful, projecting abstract truths the way only classical music seems to do. Hanging on the walls are more portraits of William’s ancestors, all captured at their finest hour, dressed elegantly, in poses of distinction. This is how they would have appeared in a setting very much like this one, enjoying this important music, content in their spot atop the world: the noble Lobkowiczes at their most dignified, remembered always for the family they belonged to.
Certainly, William’s not ready to sit for a portrait of his own. There’s still too much work to be done. “I’d probably be a millionaire by now if I had stayed in Boston,” he tells me later. “The real estate market went through the roof right when I left. I say to all my buddies when I come back to Boston, ‘Man, did I blow it, I could have been playing golf at the country club.’ But I wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun.” And his work wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying: Regardless of their condition or their uses, the Lobkowicz castles matter again. William started this quest to do right by the Lobkowiczes who came before him, recapturing the pieces of their eminence as best he could. But if he makes the wrong choices, if he invests too heavily in saving a castle that cannot be saved, it is not long-dead noblemen who will suffer. Poor decisions like that would hurt only today’s Lobkowiczes—his wife, his children, his parents—and so he has grown more cautious.
As we sit one afternoon in the Nelahozeves restaurant, over a lunch of pasta and Lobkowicz-label beers (brewed the same way since 1466—”Czech beer,” he says, “there’s nothing better”), William talks about the battered castles he’s been forced to surrender in order to keep his family safe. He is an invariably upbeat man—even his financial difficulties don’t weigh him down—but it is on this topic, this reflection of the property he couldn’t save, that I see him turn somber for the first and only time. Six castles were taken from the Lobkowiczes, reclaimed by William, and now are gone again. How far to stretch to prevent Roudnice from becoming the seventh will be an especially hard decision, perhaps the hardest yet. There’s the family connection, of course, and the overall significance of a place so storied, it shows up throughout centuries of Czech art. William is hopeful, he is experienced, he is ready to return the castle to a grandeur befitting his family legacy. But it is expensive, so extremely expensive, a place built for nobility who could afford it. “When do you reach a point of no return?” he says, looking down past his beer. “When is it more economical to just pull the building down? And if you pull the building down, it’s gone forever.”