- A noble family in the Czech Republic saw their castles and 20,000 cultural artifacts stolen, first by the Nazis then by the Communists.
- William Rudolf Lobkowicz, a 27-year-old prince, is trying to preserve and share this 700-year-old legacy using NFTs, the blockchain and the metaverse.
PRAGUE — It is past midnight on a Friday at the Lobkowicz Palace in the Prague Castle complex. A 27-year-old Czech prince, William Rudolf Lobkowicz, is crawling on the hard stone floor, taking care not to trigger the alarms behind the guardrails that partition the castle's daytime visitors from the 16th-century portraits hanging on the stone walls.
He's trying to find an outlet so he can plug a 30-foot extension cord into the wall. The cord powers camera equipment to be used in a live broadcast happening around 1 a.m. which will feature the story of his family on a CNBC prime-time show in New York. Lobkowicz will be behind the camera for the shot, but that doesn't matter to him. He simply wants to share one of the world's greatest private collections of masterworks with the public.
A young prince in an ancient castle stashed with priceless art sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale, but his life is far from a Disney adaptation.
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The palace feels more like a crypt. At the height of the Bohemian summer, the humidity clings to our skin, and it is pitch black beyond the glow of the stark fluorescent lighting that runs along the high stone ceilings. Each time Lobkowicz comes to a door, he reaches down to a bulky key ring that looks like it belongs to a monk in a monastery and fumbles for the right key to let him through — and there are dozens of doors on each floor. Each door leads us deeper into the dark stone labyrinth, deeper into the past.
He and his family do not live in this or any of their other ancestral homes. Instead, they live in personal apartments a 10-minute drive away. To stay past 10 p.m. on a Friday night, Lobkowicz has to get special permission from the military guards who patrol the grounds.
Lobkowicz, his two sisters and their parents have dedicated their life's work to maintaining what's left of their ancestral heritage: Three castles, one palace, 20,000 movable artifacts, a library of approximately 65,000 rare books, 5,000 musical artifacts and compositions — including an early copy of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony — and 30,000 boxes and folios, some of which have never been opened. All of it was stolen, twice. First by the Nazis, then by the Communists.
"You know, most people see the beautiful artworks and castles and think that this all comes incredibly easy," Lobkowicz said from the Habsburg Room, a portrait gallery on the second floor of the palace. "But in reality, behind the scenes, we're working tirelessly day and night to preserve and protect these things. Nobody's going to care about these things as much as we do."
His voice is tired at this late hour, but his youthful enthusiasm still shines through.
To protect his family's past, Lobkowicz has embraced the future. The world of cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens is intangible and abstract, a collection of mathematical formulas running on computers spread all over the world. The young prince has turned to these digital tools to safeguard and repair the artifacts that hold so much nostalgic value for the family — and, he hopes, for some of the rest of the world, as well.
"It's not just about selling NFTs to support cultural monuments, but it's also looking at: How do we preserve a record of our history?" Lobkowicz said. "Blockchain technology provides an immutable record of our cultural heritage, which you can preserve on chain, and that's something that's never been done before."
An immutable record
The palace is housed within the Hrad, the name given by locals to Prague Castle, which looms over the city. The sprawling complex was once the seat of Bohemian kings. Now, it's home to Czech presidents and to The Lobkowicz Collections, a body of work dating back more than 2,000 years.
After the thefts by the two authoritarian regimes, the collections were painstakingly reassembled over 25 years through a process known as restitution. They feature world-famous paintings by Bellotto, Bruegel, Canaletto, Cranach, Rubens, and Veronese, as well as ceramics spanning five centuries, 1,200 pieces of arms and armor, and string and wind instruments, including trumpets gilded and adorned with rubies. The collection also includes early manuscripts and scores, including several Beethoven symphonies and his Opus 18 String Quartets, some marked with the composer's original corrections.
The Lobkowiczes take none of this for granted.
In CNBC's first conversation with Lobkowicz — a nearly two-hour Zoom call from New York to Prague — he shared a translated quote from Jan Viktor Mládek, a member of Czechoslovakia's post-communist government and a former International Monetary Fund official: "When a nation's culture survives, so too does the nation."
Lobkowicz has turned that line over in his head quite a few times in the last couple of years since making this mission his life's work. To him, the strength of a country rests on preserving the cultural roots that define it.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the democratically elected president of the newly formed country passed restitution laws enabling Czechs to reclaim property stolen under Communist rule. William Sr., then 29 years old, heeded the call and uprooted his life as a real estate broker in Boston to return to Prague.
There's no definitive how-to manual on restoring stolen items to their rightful owner. It's a convoluted exercise that involves filing thousands of separate claims and can take decades. Some of the claims fail or are never resolved.
"When we first came back to the Czech Republic and restitution began, it was the Wild West, and you really didn't have any business plan whatsoever," the younger William said of his father's quest.
William Sr. traversed the country in a small Škoda Favorit, carrying with him the meticulous lists kept by the Communists when they confiscated the family's artifacts.
"Our objects were taken to over 100 locations, so we crisscrossed Czechoslovakia to recover tens of thousands of movable objects," he said. "We probably covered hundreds of thousands of miles."
Once the property was reclaimed, the family had to figure out how to pay to restore it. William's grandfather, Martin, cashed in his pension and gave it to William Sr., telling him to "try not to lose it all" — and that was it in terms of upfront capital commitments.
Covering the costs of restoration is the family's business and makes up a full-time job for each member of the Lobkowicz household, complete with weekly business meetings on Tuesdays. (Sunday is reserved for personal updates at family dinner.)
But keeping the business afloat has been a hustle, requiring increasingly creative financial acrobatics.
Collections belonging to the Lobkowiczes have been declared Czech cultural monuments, so they can't sell any pieces to help pay to restore the rest. Meanwhile, traditional philanthropy channels are running dry as museum patronage continues to fall.
The state has strict rules governing restoration protocols that can slow the renovation process and make it more expensive. There is also fierce competition for a limited number of grants earmarked to fund cultural heritage projects. Castle ownership isn't much of a novelty in Europe, and especially not in the Czech Republic, which ranks among one of the continent's top destinations for the most castles per square mile. In fact, some state governments and towns are auctioning off castles under their custodianship, because they don't have the cash to maintain them.
To keep everything afloat, the Lobkowiczes have generated income from things such as castle tours, the gift shop, and hosting events such as weddings and corporate retreats. It also means appealing to donors, applying for grants from the government, and securing loans — often at sky-high interest rates.
"My father had to take out loans with 20% revolving interest, consistently asking the banks for extensions," the younger William said of the early days, when his father first began restoring the family's castles and artifacts.
Fortunately, William Sr. had a dedicated partner in the quest.
A year into his new life in Prague, his girlfriend, Sandra Florescu, flew over to help him; they have now been married for 30 years. Coming to Prague meant leaving her role as a sixth-grade teacher in Boston's Back Bay, but she never stopped being an educator.
She has launched and run multiple educational programs in connection with the collections, including the junior curator program, which is now being modeled by schools around the world.
It helps that she spent time at the Sorbonne in Paris, studying fine arts.
The couple seemed destined for each other, with intertwining family histories that go back centuries.
In the early 1600s, their ancestors, who were diplomats and advisors to their respective kings in Bohemia and Romania, met in Prague to strategize about how to defeat the Turks who were threatening the Habsburg Empire. Fast forward to the early 1920s, when Sandra's grandfather, Radu Florescu — who had two diplomatic postings in Prague — likely crossed paths with the elder William's grandfather, Max, also a diplomat. They were reunited in London during World War II, both serving their respective countries' fight against the Nazis.
Sandra and William, too, were serendipitously linked as refugees and young adults living in Beacon Hill in Boston.
Sandra first spotted her now husband from the window of her apartment, years before they actually met in person. William Sr. was booming out the lyrics to "Chanson d'Amour," which was playing on his Walkman, preparing for concerts he performed in the area with the hopes of becoming a professional opera singer one day.
Safeguarding these memories and those of their ancestors — as well as the cultural legacy they together fought to restore — is where their son's blockchain ambitions come into view.
"We've dealt with losing our collections twice and regaining them twice as a result of authoritarian regimes, but the way we got them back was actually through the receipts they kept," the younger William said.
Both regimes tracked the process and the provenance history of these pieces, so William Sr. was able to trace ownership and identify where they had been over time. Cryptocurrency blockchains — an immutable ledger tracing the provenance of digital artifacts — are an updated version of those meticulous lists kept by the authoritarian regimes.
Only this time, the power to track these artifacts is in the hands of the rightful owners.
The rebel princes
"What I'm doing right now I don't think is any different from any of my predecessors. Each prince did something completely different based upon the times they lived in," Lobkowicz said.
The Lobkowicz princes have a history of being rebels, each breaking tradition in their own way.
Take the seventh prince, Franz Joseph Maximilian (1772-1816), who made a big bet on Ludwig van Beethoven back when the composer was still a relative unknown. Beethoven famously incorporated an additional French horn into his orchestra for the "Eroica" symphony at a time when people thought that kind of sound was blasphemous.
Joseph gave the renegade composer an annual stipend, as well as musicians and concert spaces, nearly bankrupting the House of Lobkowicz in the process. While the prince was his patron, Beethoven was free to compose music that revolutionized the symphonic world. In return, Beethoven would dedicate some of his greatest works to the prince, including his Third ("Eroica"), Fifth, and Sixth ("Pastoral") symphonies.
Then there was William's great-grandfather, Maximilian Lobkowicz (1888-1967), who realized that the world of his princely predecessors was becoming obsolete. The end of World War I brought the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the rise of independent nation-states, including a democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia.
Max, then a young lawyer and Czech patriot, embraced and supported the democratic ideals of this new republic. When hereditary titles were abolished with the formation of the new state, he gladly forfeited his aristocratic label. It was a break from tradition so profound that Max's own father, Ferdinand Zdenko (1858-1938), refused to speak to Max for a decade.
In addition to his Bohemian princely pedigree on his father's side, William's maternal line traces back to a prime minister in Bucharest and an ancient and noble Romanian boyar family. He also has blood ties to the real-world noble upon whom Bram Stoker based his legendary Count Dracula — the world's most famous fictional vampire.
Despite lineage linking him to noble families across Europe, Lobkowicz is also very American. His paternal grandfather began his career as a door-to-door salesman selling Cutco knives after marrying a dentist's daughter from Kentucky.
Lobkowicz dropped his British accent for an American one at the age of seven, and he fried mozzarella sticks at Harvard's Eliot House Grille to earn pocket cash in college.
Even though he made the Forbes "30 under 30" list last year, the prince doesn't own a car and takes a tram to work.
He gives castle tours in free pockets of time to bank cash for the restoration fund while also running the digital innovation initiatives for the House of Lobkowicz, which encompasses the nonprofit initiatives of The Lobkowicz Collections as well as several businesses, including an events management company and a winery.
Now he's applying that humble renegade spirit to learn everything he can about the technology he believes can help preserve the family legacy.
Every summer, the world's top blockchain developers and cryptographers descend on Paris to hack, code, and talk shop. The flagship event is a conference called EthCC, or Ethereum Community Conference, but the main attraction has given rise to dozens of ancillary gatherings focusing on topics running the gamut from web3 and ethereum's rival blockchains to the metaverse.
The diversity of programming and people is why Lobkowicz headed to Paris again this year. He doesn't go to speak on panels or attend blowout parties at venues such as the iconic Moulin Rouge. Instead, he prefers to fly under the radar, sitting at the periphery of an audience but always listening intently.
For him, unlocking the potential of blockchain technology comes down to speaking with developers on the ground to create technical solutions to the very real-world problems he faces on a daily basis.
"Crypto is a tool to continue working on the things we're doing. It's like a membership card to a whole world of history and culture," he said.
So far, the prince has tried out a couple of different ways to incorporate blockchain technology into his work with The Lobkowicz Collections. Most successful to date has been selling NFTs to support specific conservation needs.
The family takes a painting that needs restoration and mints an image of the painting as an NFT. The provenance of the donation and donor is also included on chain. From there, they set the price of the NFT at the cost of the restoration of the physical work tied to the token. The person who buys the NFT then receives a second NFT at the end of the restoration process as a token of their patronage.
"We are trying to bring people on the journey of philanthropy and be completely transparent with them about where their money is going," Lobkowicz said.
Thus far, the House of Lobkowicz has successfully financed more than 50 art restoration projects through this proof-of-patronage philanthropic model — including a 17th-century painting, "A Wild Boar in a Landscape," which was featured in Wes Anderson's film "The Grand Budapest Hotel."
Collectively, the family has raised $300,000 through the sale of NFTs.
When asked whether he was worried about the fact that the price of NFTs has fallen off a cliff in the last few months, Lobkowicz said the boom-and-bust cycle of the market doesn't really affect their business model. If a restoration costs $4,000, that is exactly what they charge for the piece — and it either sells or it doesn't.
He also sees NFTs as unlocking new ways of reaching a more diverse audience and creating a community of patrons and supporters who are interested in interacting with their collections in a more innovative way.
"It's important for people to understand that this isn't about just JPEGs attached to a digital receipt — we're talking about different applications that can change the way we build communities of people who care about culture and see the potential of using web3 technology to preserve it," Lobkowicz said.
POAPs — or Proof of Attendance Protocol — are a subset of NFTs that serve as a sort of attendance sheet for events or specific experiences. The prince plans to test out POAPs during the next installment of Non–Fungible Castle, an annual exhibition and conference that will run Nov. 4-5 in Prague and that bridges the biggest names in traditional art to the world of web3 and crypto.
"We will create POAPs for experiences that you have there, whether you're getting bread and salt (a traditional Czech invitation ritual) as you enter the birth house of the world-renowned Czech national composer Antonín Dvořák — or you're listening to a string quartet," he said.
POAPs could ultimately be used to upgrade ticketing and membership programs for museums.
Also on Lobkowicz's to-do list for the next few months? Getting into quadratic funding, which is a way to crowd-raise a central crypto treasury that is then used to fund public goods projects in the ethereum ecosystem — all with the help of an algorithm designed to optimize spending decisions.
Most recently, he's been testing out applications in the metaverse.
Lobkowicz worked with Somnium — a virtual reality world built on the ethereum blockchain — to put one of the rooms in the palace in Prague into the metaverse.
The family sold an NFT corresponding to the three-month restoration of this room, known as the Chinese Belvedere, for $79,000 to Oxb1, a famous crypto influencer.
It's a test case that could prove useful as the family moves to restore other properties in urgent need of repair.
Take Roudnice Castle, a 40-minute drive north of Prague. To restore the 200-room palace to its former grandeur would today require tens of millions of dollars.
It already costs a small fortune to heat the castle in the winter just enough to keep the pipes from freezing and bursting open. In the summer, leaks are commonplace, like the one that cropped up on a Saturday morning during my stay in Prague. That can translate into major damage, mold, and even collapsing ceilings.
The ongoing maintenance and renovations have also been complicated by changes made during the 41-year Soviet occupation, including retrofitting a concert hall with a basketball court.
Another execution, though still in its infancy, is turning Renaissance portraits of gowns worn by ladies of the court into gaming skins — a market worth $40 billion globally.
Lobkowicz is also thinking about digitizing the family's stockpile of historic weapons to sell as NFTs, complete with the story of their provenance, to be used in a gaming setting.
That would also help with the $400,000 price tag to restore and catalogue their inventory — which is one of the most important private arms collections in Europe.
A princess saving history through stories
It is a week later, on another Friday evening at almost midnight in Prague, except this time, I am on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean, and I am speaking with a different Lobkowicz — William's younger sister, Ileana. (Their youngest sister, Sophia, is a rising junior at Trinity College in Connecticut but remains closely connected to her family's work.)
The 25-year-old princess embraces all the ethereal qualities one might associate with aristocracy, effortlessly stepping into her birthright and assuming the old-world responsibilities that accompany it.
"These titles are not something we use or introduce ourselves with to others in our day-to-day lives. It's part of our history, but it doesn't change the work we're trying to do or the values we have," she said.
The title that Ileana does embrace is writer and storyteller for House of Lobkowicz.
The role suits her well. While a philosophy major at Boston College, Ileana launched her writing career with online student magazine The Gavel, where she wasn't afraid to speak truth to power and offer a platform to contrarian voices. Later, she shared hidden stories of Bohemia in a column called "In Search of Prague," and in her free time, she is developing a lifestyle blog that launches later this year and builds upon her experience of custodianship through storytelling.
At work, Ileana has made it her personal mission not only to share her family's story but to bring forward the narratives of her female ancestors who were quietly saving the day while letting the limelight fall on their male relatives.
Take Princess Polyxena Lobkowicz (1566-1642), a politically active and prolific figure across Bohemia. During the Defenestration of Prague — an incident that triggered the Thirty Years' War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in European history, killing one-third of Europe's population — an angry mob of members of the Protestant estates did not dare cross Polyxena's path. The princess wielded no weapon, yet her presence proved a powerful force.
Or Gillian Somerville (1890-1982), the wife of Maximilian, the noble who gladly dropped his title in tandem with the birth of democracy in Bohemia. In 1939, she overheard German officers on a train to London talking about the upcoming invasion of Czechoslovakia. She quickly wired Max to warn him, and he managed to escape to England, leaving Czechoslovakia two days before the Nazis invaded.
Finally, in a story that seems ripe for Hollywood, The Lobkowicz Collections is also home to an exchange of letters written between Princess de Lamballe — a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette whose sister was married to the sixth Prince Lobkowicz — her cousin Karl Emanuel Hessen Rheinfels Rotenburg and his wife, Leopoldine Liechtenstein.
The exchange, which hasn't been seen before, provides firsthand accounts of what it was like during Marie Antoinette's final days in prison, just before her beheading.
"I see my role and impact in our family's work as being the voice through which stories — from the past, present, and future — can be shared, preserved and celebrated. I feel it is the best and only way I can honor my ancestors — and for that matter, my descendants too," Ileana said. "We can't be stuck in the past, but we can't forget it either."
To that end, she and William have launched a special series of NFTs that capitalize upon source material that wasn't given its due in its day.
Take "Forgotten Menuet" — an NFT of an animated piece of music composed by Anna Maria Wilhelmina Althann (1703-1754), unheard for over 250 years.
"In addition to bringing to life the music itself, it also pays homage to the unrecognized ancestor, because at the time, she didn't receive any acknowledgment for her musical talent," Ileana told me as we stood adjacent to the glass-encased display containing Anna Maria's handwritten lute music.
That NFT has since been put on exhibit in a virtual museum in the metaverse.
"It's crazy to think of conceptually, because this is a piece of music that hasn't been played in 250 years and also would have only been performed in very small private spaces. Now it has the ability to be all around the world for anyone to enjoy," William said.
Another NFT from this series animates X-ray and infrared images so the viewer can see through to the invisible layers of a canvas that have been painted over. A third features a virtual rendering of the degrading sgraffito from the 16th-century façade of Nelahozeves Castle.
"We must take our history with us into the future by making it relevant today," Ileana said.