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.


William and I are on our way to see Roudnice, an 800-year-old castle that served as the center of his family’s empire. This part of the Czech countryside is rather unremarkable, resembling Kansas with a few more hills and a sprinkling of colorful little homes. Real estate may be hot in Prague, but it’s cool out here, so the land is mostly undisturbed, left to those who can work it. As we drive, William points out Lobkowicz landmarks that have long since biodegraded—places where his ancestors’ employees raised crops, cut timber, and lived in homes provided by their noble lords. The family owned it all. “This,” he says, “is really Lobkowicz country.”

Driving along the narrow roads, William reminisces about when he first arrived in Prague. He’d planned to dabble in real estate and bop around the country, but the Czech government began passing a set of laws that would change everything for him. Under these orders of restitution, anyone who had lost property to the Communists could reclaim it. Here was an opportunity to salvage his family’s history.

He flew back to Boston to consult with his parents. “We wanted justice,” he recalls. For a family whose heritage had been all but ripped from them, it was time to set things right—and perhaps regain some of their past fortune. But that would come at a cost, because restitution, it turned out, was going to require serious legal muscle. The family would have to prove not just whom they had descended from, but also that each item they were after—whether a hilly pasture or a centuries-old dinnerware set—was truly once part of the Lobkowiczes’ vast holdings. To fund this effort, William’s father cashed in his pension, and his mother and sister started an interior decorating business to bring in extra income. For his part, William would oversee the restitution endeavor from Prague. “I was single, I had no debts,” he says. “It’s a pretty exciting opportunity to come back here and have an adventure.”

The adventure, he knew, would be rife with other challenges, as well. The restitution laws had a catch: A family could have its treasures back, but nothing could leave the country. That little detail had the effect of destroying the value of reclaimed Lobkowicz properties, since no antiques or art dealer is going to buy something he can’t sell on the international market. Had they been able to auction, say, their original painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (made in 1565, it’s one of 45 surviving Brueghels in the world), the sale likely could have funded the entire restitution effort. Instead, these assets were, in a cruel sense, priceless. To the family, though, regaining control of their heritage was worth the expense. It was a way to circle back in time, to make this dark chapter of exile an interruption in their story instead of an ending.

Rather than targeting only the most meaningful properties, William and his lawyers made the decision to go after everything that had once belonged to the Lobkowiczes, pursuing every acre and building, every old rifle and violin. Proving such ownership might have been impossible were it not for the Communists’ curiously meticulous note-keeping, which left behind a paper trail—a veritable treasure map—detailing every piece of property, where it had been seized, and where it ended up. Still, the process was extraordinarily expensive and time-consuming, spreading William’s limited resources thin. But it was what the entire family wanted.

The small pieces came together first: a court declaring that William was the rightful owner of, say, a 17th-century sofa, at which point he and the lawyers would dash off to the proper castle and quite literally haul the furniture down the stairs, load it into the back of a van, and zoom off into the Czech sunset. During those early trips, William would reflect on his grandfather, who’d been forced to abandon the very property now being reclaimed. “I think he would have been happy that we were able to come back here, and his country was free again.”

In 1992, William married Sandra, who had moved to Prague from Boston, making two Lobkowiczes scouring the nation for treasure, the prince and his new princess. The next year, they celebrated their first major score: Nelahozeves, the castle William had admired at age 14. Now here it was, beautifully perched atop the hill. His. It could be home if he wanted—he could be a real prince in a real castle, wandering the halls in his princely pajamas, demanding songs of old.

But such fantasies were a dangerous distraction. The pieces of William and Sandra’s newfound estate weren’t bringing in any income. The couple had to come up with a way for their possessions to somehow pay for themselves. They discussed a few ideas before coming to the most obvious conclusion: They would capitalize on the Czech fascination with William’s family (and, with any luck, tourists’ enthrallment with local nobility) and put all these private treasures on public display. So they hung antique paintings along the walls of Nelahozeves and spread their ancient couches and guns and books throughout the palace, converting the castle into a museum. As visitors trickled in, the Lobkowiczes learned the ins and outs of their new business. After one person asked for water, William bought a fridge and started selling refreshments. Someone else wanted a postcard, so Sandra built a gift shop.

As the couple fine-tuned the family museum, their lawyers kept making headway. They eventually scored nine more castles and about 150 smaller houses. Tracts of land. More than 2
0,000 pieces of art and furniture. A winery. A brewery. A spa. Some 65,000 rare books, the oldest a gospel from the early 900s. And hundreds of portraits of Lobkowiczes of yore, some of them lying in state and bearing a resemblance to William—which alarmed him, for there in these paintings was the foreshadowing of his own aging, and even his death. And yet, in him, the family was coming alive.