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.

Photograph by Michal Novotny

Photograph by Michal Novotny

Prince William Lobkowicz stands at the back of the room, smiling respectfully as the U.S. ambassador with the photo-op grin prattles on about something or other that none of us in the crowd can quite make out. Mrphm raphm Starbucks harphm is about all we get, mostly because he’s speaking into a broken microphone. Nobody seems to mind, though. They’ve drunk deeply from the dark-roasted hype surrounding this, the grand opening of the Czech Republic’s very first Starbucks. (“Allow us to transport you to a world of coffee sensations,” read the invitations.) Waiters fill and refill champagne flutes crowned with slices of strawberry.

Ambassadors don’t often appear at coffee shop openings in the States, of course, but here in this romantic European outpost still shaking off its Communist hangover, even the most clichéd American exports are a welcome sign of progress. Here, the locals are thrilled. They sip free bubbly and espressos, crowding around the emissary and applauding whenever he pauses for breath, laughing when he seems to be cracking a joke. At the end of the speech, the band strikes up a jazzy tune and the assembly turns inward, back to its caffeinated banter. Which for William, scion of a centuries-old noble family, means it’s time to work.

William has been a prince since birth, but he’s only been in the prince business for the past 20 years or so; before that, he was working as a Boston real estate broker, living in a tiny Beacon Hill apartment…the Prince of Nothing. Since coming to the Czech Republic, though, he’s become part of the establishment, an expert at making connections, shaking hands and reminding Prague’s new nobility—corporate leaders and czars of the city’s thriving tourism industry—that he’s in town and eager to do business with them. In fact, his latest venture—Lobkowicz Palace—is only a short stroll from this very coffee shop, just past some ancient spires and up a steep flight of stairs, perched atop the city as if to keep watch over it. The palace, which has been in the Lobkowicz family since 1603, is one of four that William owns in the country.

I first met William last fall when he was back in Boston for a round of fundraising that seemed rather beneath his majestic status. His publicist had trumpeted by e-mail the arrival of “Prague’s Prince,” and he was busy pitching local investors on the merits of his various Czech-based enterprises, as well as drumming up business for his most recent undertaking, an events management company—for anyone looking to host a corporate function in a Central European castle, for instance, he had just the spot. U.S. media attention was part of the marketing strategy, and when we sat down for drinks at Brasserie Jo (the prince had an herbal tea), the publicist provided me with a full package of promotional materials, including several photos and a CD of music recorded in one of the palaces.

At the Starbucks event, though, William isn’t so overt in his business solicitations. He’s keen, but not shameless, resorting to old-fashioned charm—self-mockery about his balding head is a favorite—and a well-honed sense of precisely whom to cozy up to. As we walk through the new café, he greets the general manager of the Mandarin Oriental Prague, and takes a tour of the shop with a Starbucks regional exec. Toward the end of the evening, he gets chatty with film director Jir˘í Menzel, a local legend. The two shake hands, causing a gaggle of paparazzi to jostle for position, their camera shutters anxiously clacking.

Despite appearances, William’s tireless networking at these sorts of soirees has nothing to do with the social pleasantries of nobility. He is single-mindedly focused on money, the fate of an empire his ancestors spent 700 years creating dependent on his success in procuring it. So after some small talk and an exchange of business cards with Menzel, William skillfully steers the conversation to matters most dear to him.

“I would love,” he says, “to show you our Lobkowicz Palace.”