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27-year-old Bohemian prince raises $300,000 in NFTs to preserve and share castles and ancient artifacts

CNBC’s MacKenzie Sigalos and William Rudolf Lobkowicz in the Family Chapel of the Lobkowicz Palace depicting an early 18th-century altarpiece painting of St. Wenceslas, patron saint of the Czech nation.

House of Lobkowicz

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 primetime 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 fairytale, but his life is far from a Disney adaptation.

The palace feels more like a crypt. At the height of 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 keyring 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.

William Rudolf Lobkowicz walking through the Prague Castle complex.

House of Lobkowicz

He and his family do not live in this or any of their other ancestral castles or palaces. Instead, they live in personal apartments a ten-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.

William, his two sisters, and parents have dedicated their life’s work to maintaining what’s left of their ancestral heritage: 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. 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 says 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.”

William Rudolf Lobkowicz examining old family photographs in the Lobkowicz Archives.

House of Lobkowicz

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?” explains William. “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.”

CNBC’s MacKenzie Sigalos tours Lobkowicz Palace at Prague Castle with William Rudolf Lobkowicz.

House of Lobkowicz

An immutable record

The rebel princes

William Rudolf Lobkowicz welcoming guests at Non-Fungible Castle 2021.

House of Lobkowicz

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 (short for 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 like 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.

NFT Gut Shot on display (next to the original painting) at the Lobkowicz Palace, the sale of which financed the restoration of several portraits of officers in the Lobkowicz Collections.

House of Lobkowicz

So far, the prince has tried out a couple 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,” explained William.

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.”

Paintings from the Lobkowicz Collections awaiting their restoration in an atelier, financed by the sale of NFTs during Non-Fungible Castle 2021.

House of Lobkowicz

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 that 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 a way to unlock 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,” explained Lobkowicz.

Non-Fungible Castle 2021 Exhibition at the Lobkowicz Palace.

House of Lobkowicz

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 (running Nov. 4–5 in Prague) 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.

William Rudolf Lobkowicz explains to CNBC’s MacKenzie Sigalos the renovation process of the Chinese Belvedere room inside Lobkowicz Palace at Prague Castle.

House of Lobkowicz

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.

A look inside the Chinese Belvedere room in the metaverse.

House of Lobkowicz

A look inside the Chinese Belvedere room in the metaverse.

House of Lobkowicz

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.

Roudnice Castle, the former ducal seat and residence of the Lobkowicz family.

House of Lobkowicz

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.

William 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.

CNBC’s MacKenzie Sigalos and Ileana Lobkowicz leaving the Arms Room of the Lobkowicz Palace, featuring 17th–18th century military and hunting rifles and a three-quarter suit of armor.

House of Lobkowicz

A princess saving history through stories

Ileana Lobkowicz in the Baroque Music Room at the Lobkowicz Palace.

House of Lobkowicz

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 which triggered the Thirty Years’ War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in European history that killed 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. 

A letter from an Italian composer and violinist Francesco Geminiani addressed to Ferdinand Phillipp, 6th Prince Lobkowicz, dated 1748.

House of Lobkowicz

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 — the lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette, whose sister was married to the 6th Prince Lobkowicz — her cousin Karl Emanuel Hessen Rheinfels Rotenburg, and his wife, Leopoldine Liechtenstein.

The exchange, which hasn’t been seen before, provides first–hand accounts of what it was like during Marie Antoinette’s final days during her prison stay in the Bastille, 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 says. “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 which capitalize upon source material that wasn’t given its just 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 acknowledgement for her musical talent,” Ileana tells me as we stand adjacent 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.

Menuet, an early 18th-century lute tablature composed by Anna Maria Wilhelmina Althann, wife of the 4th Prince Lobkowicz, displayed at the Lobkowicz Palace.

House of Lobkowicz

“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,” said William.

Another NFT from this series animates X-ray and infrared images so that you 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 explains.

William Rudolf Lobkowicz and CNBC’s MacKenzie Sigalos in the Baroque Concert Hall of the Lobkowicz Palace featuring 17th-century frescoes.

House of Lobkowicz

Read More: 27-year-old Bohemian prince raises $300,000 in NFTs to preserve and share castles and ancient artifacts

2022-08-07 09:11:33

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