Sunday, June 22, 2008

Twice Stolen, Now Returned: A Princely Collection in Prague

Among the impressive items on display are 'Haymaking,' one of only five surviving paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

The story seems almost a fairy tale -- that someone who grew up in America, spoke only what he calls "survival Czech" at home, and was working in Boston real estate should become an acknowledged Czech prince and chatelain of one of Europe's most glorious private art collections. But it happens to be true! His name is William Lobkowicz, and today he lives with his wife, Alexandra, and three children in an apartment in Prague.

Had a friend not tipped me off before I left on a recent visit to that city, I would never have known either about Mr. Lobkowicz or about his family's art collection, which opened to the public only last year. Housed in a 16th-century family palace on the grounds of Prague Castle, the Lobkowicz Princely Collections are a treasure trove of paintings, drawings, furnishings, and priceless musical manuscripts, all collected by successive generations of one of the oldest and most illustrious families in Bohemia. This astonishing collection, however, is still something of a well-kept secret; guidebooks tend to be updated only every three or four years, so many visitors to Prague leave having never known of its existence, let alone that it is open every day from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The masterpiece of the collection is one of only five surviving paintings made by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in 1565, which depict the seasons of the year. (There are thought to have originally been six. One is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, three others are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the other is lost.) This harvest scene presents an amazingly rich panorama of peasant life: Hay is being loaded onto a cart; baskets laden with fruit and vegetables are transported in procession on the heads of their pickers; a group of haymakers, carrying rakes and wearing broad-rimmed straw hats, are heading off to the fields, while others are already hard at work scything corn and bringing in the harvest. In the distance is a village and stretching far beyond are mountains and sky.

This painting alone is worth the price of admission, but it's only the start of what's on view. There are two very fine Canalettos, a curious Rubens painting of Hygieia clutching an ominous looking serpent, a superb Velásquez portrait, an exquisite Cranach, a room of Tiepolo drawings, and the largest collection of 16th-century Spanish portraits, many of them by Coello, outside of Spain. The sitters, not surprisingly, were some of the most important personages throughout Europe and related to the Lobkowiczes.

A reliquary head and bust of St. Ursula from 1340 is just one of the other treasures on display -- lost for centuries, but finally found in the 1930s in a box of amateur theatrical props.

Successive generations of the Lobkowiczes were known for their love of music, and beginning in the 17th century the family even employed its own orchestra. (Gluck, the son of a forester on one of their estates, played in it.) Joseph Frantisek Maximilian, the seventh Prince Lobkowicz, was probably the most notable patron. He collected early instruments and assembled a huge number of manuscripts and printed scores. The original performing manuscripts of Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth symphonies, showing the composer's own autographed alterations, are on display in the palace, as well as the first printed edition of the Third Symphony. Visitors can also see a letter from Beethoven thanking the prince for his annuity, as well as a manuscript score of Handel's Messiah filled with annotations made in Mozart's own hand.

To walk through this collection is to begin to understand the wealth and the power of patronage of the Lobkowicz family and its connections to royalty all over Europe. Lobkowiczes have lived in this palace in Prague since 1603, but it was only one of 15 that they once owned -- and hardly one of the grandest. (Roudnice Castle, built in the 17th century, has more than 250 rooms.)

That their collection has survived at all is something of a miracle, since it was stolen twice in the 20th century. The first theft was by the Nazis in 1939, when William's grandfather, Prince Max Lobkowicz, and his wife and children fled the country. After the war, during which he represented the Czech government in exile in England, Prince Max returned to Czechoslovakia and reclaimed his property, only to have it taken away again in 1948, when the Communists came into power and confiscated his palaces, lands, business holdings, and even a brewery. Again, the prince fled and rejoined his wife and children, who by this time were living in America.

William Lobkowicz, now in his mid-40s, grew up in Massachusetts and was educated at the Milton School and Harvard. After graduating, he was working in commercial real estate in Boston and tells of watching television in 1989 and seeing images of East German refugees seeking asylum in Prague. Days later the Berlin Wall crumbled, and Mr. Lobkowicz decided that he would go to Prague and try to reclaim his family's patrimony; he moved there in 1990.

The task was daunting, especially because he didn't have complete records of everything his grandfather had owned and his possessions had been dispersed throughout the country. The process of reclamation involved traveling to more than 100 locations for different objects, never knowing what would be there and what condition they would be in. The palace in Prague was returned in 2003 and required an almost total renovation. There was also the challenge of where to store objects before they could be moved to the palace. The reclamation effort has required the labor of four lawyers working full time for seven years. Claims had to be filed and required byzantine procedures and endless negotiations. "Things staggered back," he says. "We never knew when we would get something, so we had to be flexible in our planning. One day, the brewery was returned with 150 employees. I knew how to drink beer, but that was about all!"

One might suppose that after all this legal wrangling, Mr. Lobkowicz and his wife might want a life of gentle leisure. But the couple have chosen instead to be at the forefront of this family enterprise. In addition to their palace in Prague, they have also opened Nelahozeves Castle outside of Prague to the public. Their aim is to make their collections self-supporting. She is primarily concerned with matters of conservation and display; he takes care of the business side of running a museum. Two nonprofit foundations have been established, one in the States and one in the Czech Republic. A museum shop has been opened and a Friends group established. A cafeteria is up and running. There are concerts every day at noon, and certain rooms in the palace can be rented for events. It's surely more hectic than Boston real estate ever was. But for this energetic couple, who now speak perfect Czech, it's exactly where they want to be.

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