It is midnight on a Friday night at the Lobkowicz Palace in the Prague Castle complex. William Rudolf Lobkowicz, a 27-year-old Czech prince, is crawling on the hard stone floor, careful not to set off the alarms hidden behind the guardrails that separate the castle's daytime visitors from the 16th-century portraits hung on the stone walls.
He's looking for an outlet to plug a 30-foot extension cord into the wall. The cord supplies power to camera equipment for a live broadcast scheduled for 1 a.m., which will feature his family's story on a CNBC primetime show in New York Lobkowicz will be behind the camera for the shot, but it makes no difference to him. He simply wishes to share one of the world's greatest private collections of masterworks with the public.
A young prince in an ancient castle filled with priceless art may sound like the beginning of a fairytale, but his life is far from one.
He and his family do not live in any of their ancestral castles or palaces. They instead live in private apartments a ten-minute drive away. To remain after 10 p.m., Lobkowicz needs special permission from the military guards who patrol the grounds on a Friday night.
Three castles, one palace, 20,000 moveable artifacts, a library of approximately 65,000 rare books, 5,000 musical artifacts and compositions — including an early copy of Beethoven's 5th symphony — and 30,000 boxes and folios, some of which have never been opened — are all part of William, his two sisters, and parents' life's work. It was all stolen twice. The Nazis came first, then the Communists.
"You know, most people see the beautiful artworks and castles and think that this is all so easy," Lobkowicz says from the Habsburg Room, a portrait gallery on the palace's second floor. "But, in reality, we're working tirelessly behind the scenes, day and night, to preserve and protect these things." Nobody will be as concerned about these issues as we are."
Lobkowicz has embraced the future in order to protect his family's past. The world of cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens is intangible and abstract, consisting of a collection of mathematical formulas that run on computers all over the world. The young prince has turned to digital tools to protect and repair the artifacts that have such sentimental value for the family — and, he hopes, for some of the rest of the world.
′′It's not just about selling NFTs to support cultural monuments; it's also about preserving a record of our history. " William explains. "Blockchain technology provides an immutable record of our cultural heritage that can be preserved on a chain, which has never been done before."
An immutable record
The palace is housed within the Hrad, the locals' name for Prague Castle, which towers over the city. The vast complex was once the residence of Bohemian kings. It now houses Czech presidents as well as The Lobkowicz Collections, a body of work dating back over 2,000 years.
The collections, which were painstakingly reassembled over a 25-year period through a process known as restitution, include world-famous works of art by Bellotto, Bruegel, Canaletto, Cranach, Rubens, and Veronese, as well as ceramics covering five centuries, 1,200 pieces of arms and armor, and string and wind instruments, including trumpets decorated in gold and set with rubies. Early manuscripts and scores, including many Beethoven symphonies and his Opus 18 String Quartets, are also included, with some bearing the composer's original corrections.
None of this is taken for granted by the Lobkowiczes. Two different authoritarian regimes stole their castles and artifacts.
"When a nation's culture survives, so does the nation," William said, paraphrasing Jan Viktor Mládek, a member of Czechoslovakia's post-communist government and a former International Monetary Fund official.
In the two years since committing to this mission as his life's work, William has repeatedly replayed that line in his head. According to him, the strength of a country is based on preserving the cultural roots that define it.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly formed Czechoslovakia's democratically elected president enacted restitution laws that allowed Czechs to reclaim property stolen under Communist rule. William Sr., then 29, answered the call and left his life as a real estate broker in Boston behind to return to Prague.
Because the Lobkowiczes' collections have been designated as Czech cultural monuments, they cannot sell any pieces to fund the restoration of the rest. Meanwhile, traditional philanthropic channels are drying up as museum attendance continues to decline.
The preservation of their ancestors' memories, as well as the cultural legacy they worked together to restore, is where their son's blockchain ambitions come into play.
"We've dealt with losing and regaining our collections twice as a result of authoritarian regimes," the younger William explained, "but the way we got them back was actually through the receipts they kept."
Both regimes tracked the process and history of these pieces, allowing William Sr. to trace ownership and identify where they had been over time. Cryptocurrency blockchains — an immutable ledger that tracks the provenance of digital artifacts — are an updated version of authoritarian regimes' meticulous lists.
Only now do the rightful owners have the ability to track these artifacts.