Prague’s Prince and His Art
Recovering art and restoring palaces—his family's heritage—has become the work of William Lobkowicz's lifetime.
Watching the television news at home in Boston one evening in November 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany and Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, a young American named William Lobkowicz was moved and fascinated by scenes of East German refugees scaling the walls and camping out on the lawn of the West German embassy in Prague.
But it was not simply these events that had him “glued” to the television. The embassy itself, he noted—an elegant baroque structure—was a building known as Lobkowicz Palace. It had once been home to his ancestors.
Family Legacy Lost and Found
He knew he was descended from a long line of princes, one of the wealthiest families in Bohemia. His father, Martin, had been born in a palace of 250 rooms at Roudnice, 50 kilometres north of Prague.
In 1939, however, the Nazis had confiscated the family’s estates, and though they were returned in 1945, the Communists had seized them again within three years. Now Eastern Europe was once again in ferment. In these times of upheaval, he wondered what might happen to them. What else in the soon-to-be renamed Czech Republic had belonged to his family?
In 1991, at age 29, he quit his job in real estate and moved to Prague. That was just as former President Vaclav Havel’s restitution laws, which provided for the return of confiscated buildings, businesses and artworks, were passed. Here he attempted to piece together the family’s heritage. “We had less than a year to come up with lists of our former possessions, to find the actual objects which had been dispersed to perhaps 100 locations, and to file the paperwork,” he says.
Lobkowicz Palace, the finest museum in Prague, is one of nine castles that have been returned to the Lobkowicz family. (To date, five have been sold; and one, Roudnice, had been leased to the military music academy, though it reverted to William at the end of 2008.) Lobkowicz Palace stands on the northwest tip of the Castle District, close to the imperial residence, commanding superb views across the city’s spires and up the river Vltava. But though the building itself is remarkable, it pales beside the art collection now housed in it.
For this Lobkowicz Palace (not to be confused with the one across town that remains the German Embassy, and which the family has not reclaimed) is now home to one of the most fascinating private archives in the world. There are paintings, decorative arts, musical instruments and manuscripts, 65,000 books, and letters.
Among the treasures is arguably the greatest painting in the Czech Republic, Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Haymaking. There are the two spectacular large canvases by Canaletto of the Thames. (London has rarely looked so Venetian.) Next a stunning Cranach Madonna and a superb Diego Velazquez portrait of the Infanta Margarita Teresa of Spain—the jewel in what is one of the largest collections of Spanish portraits outside the Prado.
Perhaps the most extraordinary gallery in the palace is the Beethoven Room on the second floor, a display of instruments and scores. The most fascinating archive is the 4,500 music manuscripts by, among others, Mozart (a re-orchestrated and “improved” version of Handel’s Messiah), Haydn and Gluck.
Elsewhere, at Nelahozeves Castle, Lobkowicz plans to develop a Dvorak museum. In the meantime, he hosts a Dvorak Music Festival at the castle. Its frequency depends on funds—“it’s very hand-to-mouth”—but over the past decade it has attracted world-class singers such as Renée Fleming, Barbara Hendricks and Eva Urbanova, as well as lesser-known Czech ensembles.
Music is important to Lobkowicz, who majored in history at Harvard but, as he puts it, “practically minored in music.” It’s a gift that runs in the family, for his ancestor, the seventh Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian, sang in the Czech premiere of Haydn’s Creation, funded two private orchestras and almost bankrupted the family with his patronage of Beethoven.
Maintaining the Museum
Lebkowicz has also revived the ancient family brewery, which dates back to 1466, and the winery at Roudnice, which—in the opinion of British wine authority Hugh Johnson—produces some of the Czech Republic’s better wines.
For all this, he is disarmingly modest. “Nothing in my background really qualifies me to manage a diversified portfolio of national treasures—with no cash,” he says, his interests as curatorial as his talents are entrepreneurial. But there is also a sense of patrimony, a sense that in the long term, a world war, half a century of Communism and his grandfather’s flight to England and then the United States were just a blip in the Lobkowicz history of connoisseurship, patronage and patriotism.