Article du Times Saturday Magazine

Le Times Saturday Magazine a publié le 8 novembre 1997 un article intitulé Treasure Trove

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J’ai essayé en vain de retrouver ce article, en créant un compte pour chercher dans les archives. Par chance, j’ai retrouvé la copie de cet article dans une sauvegarde de l’ancienne version du site ilotresor. Je propose donc cet article, pour un usage privé. Si le Times désire faire retirer cet article, il lui suffit de m’écrire.

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Treasure Trove, first published in the The Times Saturday Magazine on November 8, 1997

Max Valentin is tired, he is tired of being Max Valentin — the name he picked at random out of a phone book: « On the third attempt because the first two were ridiculous. » This man, overweight, with untidy grey hair and an unkempt grey beard, is one of the most hunted men in France. One night four years ago Valentin drove his car to a secret location, dug a hole 80cm deep, buried a statue of a bronze owl and challenged his compatriots to find it. The bronze figure can be exchanged for a solid gold and silver owl with diamond cheeks, tiger-eye eyes and a ruby-encrusted zoisite plinth. It is vulgar but valuable, with a price tag of one million French Francs. At any one time over 20,000 people are searching for the owl, but no one has yet solved the 11 puzzles that reveal its whereabouts. It began as a game and a seemingly fun way to make a living, but La Trace de La Chouette D’Or has come to dominate Valentin’s life with an endless cycle of questions, love letters, bribes, crank phone calls and death threats. For many it has become an obsession and a handful have stopped playing by the rules: instead of looking for the owl, they are looking for Valentin.

Before Max became Max he had an ordinary job, a real life and an unambiguous identity, about all of which he is understandably coy. Then one day twenty years ago his boss asked him organize a treasure hunt for some clients. Valentin thought he was on to a good thing. During 1978 he spent 450 hours — « My computer counted them for me. » — writing the 11 « enigmas » that would eventually comprise the bulk of his book « Sur La Trace De La Chouette D’Or ». And for over ten years they sat in the drawer of his bureau; that is until 1992 when Valentin met the sculptor, and pretender to the French throne via a third generation bastard lineage, Michel Becker. They struck a deal. Valentin would provide the clues and Becker would paint pictures to go with them. More significantly, Becker would furnish the prize. He sculpted an owl, the symbol of the dispossessed French court during the French revolution. Valentin buried the owl, with a pick axe, a spade and a steel bar for protection, in the early hours of 23 and 24 April 1993. Two days later he and Becker launched their book which shot into the bestseller lists with its tantalizing promise of hidden riches. It was a nice little earner for Valentin and Becker, but it was not long before Valentin realized he was going to get more than he had bargained for.

« At the beginning I would cross myself every morning. I was scared that somebody would find it too soon, » says Valentin. We are sitting at the back of a café in central Paris out of earshot of the other customers. A few minutes before we were in a nearby bank with Valentin’s solicitor who holds the key to the safety deposit box containing the owl. Under the watchful eye of the bank’s head of security the owl was brought to an ante room where Valentin posed for photographs with the prize, but only on condition that we did not name the bank or betray his anonymity in the pictures. This morning the solicitor received a phone call from one of the hunters. « He was very excited and said he knew that the owl was buried in a cemetery. I don’t normally tell people if they are right or wrong, but sometimes I have to. We had to stop him digging up the cemetery, » says Valentin seriously, incidents like this have gone past a joke. He counts off examples on his fingers: « There was one who tried to dig up a train track and another who walked into a bank with a pick axe and started to dig up the floor of the lobby. I’ve told everyone it is buried in a public place but some people are crazy.

One man called on Valentin’s solicitor carrying a large parcel. Inside was a road sign still attached to a large lump of concrete. He had dug it up and insisted that the owl was buried underneath it.

One morning about two years ago Valentin received a phone call from the police somewhere in central France, he has promised not to say where. They had a problem. The previous day a man had firebombed a church and left behind a book containing the message: « The golden owl is underneath the chapel. » The bomb squad were now defusing another bomb in another church; with it was the message: « Yesterday I made a mistake, it was not in the other chapel, it is in this one. » Valentin instantly recognized the style of the messages. For months he had been receiving letters via his solicitor from a man who had convinced himself the buried owl was booby-trapped. His letters had steadily grown more deranged and he was sure that Valentin was trying to kill him. « His letters got crazier and crazier, » says Valentin. « He wrote: ‘This morning I got up and found three white stones by my front door. It means something, it means you know who I am and you are going to kill me.' » Valentin had even spoken to the man on the phone in a vain attempt to reassure him that the hunt was only a game. The police finally arrested him and he was admitted to a mental hospital, but it was a turning point for Valentin. He understood how far things had gotten out of hand and he began to wonder if the hunt for the owl was just a game anymore. He asked himself how long he could continue playing it.

The search for the owl should be no more than a game. On page 30 of the third edition of the book is the first clue:

Il n’est de pire aveugle que celui qui ne veut pas voir (The blindest man is the one who refuses to see)

1=530
3=470
5=600
7=420
9=650

What on earth does it all mean? The object is to solve each puzzle in turn. Together they reveal an area of France and hidden in each clue is part of a twelfth clue pinpointing the exact location of the treasure. Seemingly, no one has even discovered the general area yet, but that has not stopped over 100 people each day from excavating the French countryside. Over the years Valentin has made public announcements telling his followers that the treasure is not in a particular area because excessive digging was ruining the landscape. He recalls: « I found out that late one night two people met two other people on exactly the same spot at exactly the same time and they were all digging for the owl. They all had completely wrong solutions and their solutions were all completely different and yet they chose the same spot. I asked a friend of mine, who is a mathematician, to calculate the probability of that happening and he said it couldn’t be done. The chances were a thousand billion to one and yet there have been at least three similar incidents that I know of. » Valentin has to be careful what he reveals. A French newspaper published an account of the night Valentin buried the owl. « I was very scared that night, » he admits. « I had to drive down a small road through a wood and a car was blocking my way. It was 2am and there in the middle of the wood was a man looking for his dog. You won’t believe it but this dog was named Dracula. » When people read this, vets all over France were flooded with inquiries about the dog. It seems some treasure hunters will try anything rather than solve the puzzles.

At the headquarters of the Association Francaise des Prospecteurs on the Rue Charles Baudelaire the search for the ever elusive owl has sparked a huge boom in demand for metal detectors. A poster on the wall shows a bikini-clad blonde rising out of the sea brandishing a metal detector like a machine gun. Standing in front of the poster is Georges Herment, the Association’s president. Although Georges is a professional treasure hunter with a passion for genuine antiquities, he is also a big fan of the owl hunters: « They’re great. When they think they’ve solved all the clues and found the treasure they come in here and hire or even buy a metal detector, » he explains.

« They ask us to go with them and help them but we won’t. They say it’s in Marseilles and we think, ‘Of course it is!’ Can you imagine, we have so many of these people coming in and asking for help. We’ve had hundreds looking for the owl and they haven’t found it — they’re all obsessed.

« You see the same faces coming in again and again. There is one man — I’d call him an intellectual — who has been back ten times. When he has reworked all the clues he’s back again and this time he is sure but he always returns with a long face.

« They don’t realize that there is probably a metal plate over the owl and the detector tells them it is just ordinary metal and they miss it — lot’s of people have probably missed it. » And Georges is probably right, the last time Max checked the area to see if the owl was still there he saw a hole dug near where the owl is hidden. Meanwhile Georges is counting his pennies, he charges owl hunter three times the usual price for hiring a detector and they are happy to pay. Valentin is amused to hear this. « Good luck to them. The owl is protected against metal detectors. They are crazy people, totally crazy. » He knows all too well how crazy.

Valentin anticipated a large post bag so he set up a Minitel site at 36 15 MAXVAL. Minitel is France’s primitive precursor to the Internet. To date Valentin has received over one million messages on his five Minitels — a new French record — and for the first two years he replied to 100,000 messages individually. Valentin feels a singular sense of duty to the hunters: « I couldn’t go away, or take a holiday for two years, I was spending 15 hours a day in front of the Minitel. I remember I once went on a business trip for four days and when I got back I didn’t sleep for a week trying to catch up with the replies, working round the clock. » Early last year Max stopped replying to most of the individual messages, it was destroying his health.

The Minitel has allowed many treasure hunters to form alliances in their search for the owl and it has allowed Valentin to keep an omniscient watch on the progress of the hunt. But within hours of the hunt’s start weird messages began to arrive. « I received lots of offers, some of them were offering three million francs — that’s three times more than the owl is worth. People want to find the owl because they are obsessed or impassioned, not for the money. I also get a lot of ladies « you know, » Valentin laughs. « I promise you I haven’t taken any of them up on the offer. »

Then came the death threats. Valentin puts a brave face on them: « Most of them are just pathetic: ‘If you don’t tell me where the owl is I’m going to kill you.' » As time went by the messages got sicker. Some of them read: ‘You have children don’t you? Tell me where the owl is hidden.’ These are the ones that can really make Valentin sweat. « These people are nutcases, » he says. His only comfort is that he had the foresight to adopt the persona of Max.

Not all the messages, however, are nasty — although even the friendly ones betray an unnerving detachment from reality. « One couple went out to the woods in the middle of the night with a spade but instead of digging — guess what they did? And nine months later they wrote to me and said because of the owl we now have a baby. When people are married I am the first one to know. One man wrote to me to say he had won a car and another woman used to write to me about how upset she was about her father’s remarriage. I reply to them, but I’m not a doctor, what can I say? »

Valentin’s problems do not stop with the Minitel. He has received thousands of letters and some of them are eighty pages long. He calculated that if he tried to read them it would take him eight hours a day for three months. So he does not open them anymore. Instead, they go into a storehouse and they will be opened if and when somebody finds the owl. But ignoring the hunters doesn’t make them go away and many of them are dedicating their time to finding Valentin: « Some of them think I am a rock star, others think a TV journalist or a politician, even a round-the-world yachtsmen. » A few of them have found him. Valentin was asked to go on a TV programme about the hunt. Afterwards he waited for half an hour before leaving then drove on to a restaurant with his fellow guests. He was watching carefully to make sure nobody was following him. After their meal Valentin drove one of the guests back to her hotel before heading home. When he walked in he switched on one of his Minitels and was dismayed:

« Your car plates are number blah, blah, blah. You dropped so and so at such and such a hotel at five past midnight exactly, then you drove off. All the details were there and I had seen nobody, honestly. It’s not a question of being paranoid, I was very careful. When I left the studio the car park was empty and I could have seen if anybody was following me. » Somebody obviously took delight in posing an unnerving puzzle which Valentin could not solve. Others have rung him at home and his 10-year-old daughter knows she must say she has never heard of anyone by the name of Max Valentin.

So why has nobody found the owl? Valentin shrugs: « Good question. I have no idea. Reading the messages I get on my screen I will see one and think, ah, here is a guy who is on the right track and then four or five days later I find him on another track that is wrong. People take three steps forward and two back. » If anyone can find the owl it is Gerald Gay and Valentin takes great delight in Dr Gay’s lack of success — « You should ask him why he hasn’t found it, » he chuckles. Valentin regularly sends Gay messages teasing him about his lack of success, but he says Gay is the best treasure hunter in France. Gay is one of the more lucid hunters, but there are degrees of madness

« Dr Gay is dangerous to people who set hunts, » says Valentin. « Mr Valentin said that about me? » Asks the doctor puffing with pride. He does not look dangerous, this slightly built immunologist with a squeaky voice, sitting in his treasure hunting room in the sleepy town of Angers, an hour and a half by train from Paris. Indeed his long-suffering wife Claudine, a black belt in Kendo, is likely to be much more dangerous if Gay does not stop spending most of his life searching for treasure. « I went to Paris and bought her some earrings with my last winnings, » confides Gay. To date he has found six treasures and made about £100,000 from his hunts. He has been hot on the trail of the owl since the day the book was published.

Gay does not hesitate to cancel patient appointments to follow up a lead in his hunt for the owl. There is not a minute of the day when he is not looking for it: « I think about it all the time: when I’m working, or driving my car, or reading a book, or watching TV or now, speaking to you, I may have an inspiration. » One can’t help wondering where this commitment stops. « Every weekend or holidays I only work on treasure hunts. Sometimes I tell my secretary no more appointments, and the patients who already have an appointment? I tell her they can wait. If only they knew. They think I am at a conference when really I am at home. » Is he mad? « It depends what you define as mad, if I tell you that I sometimes work 20 hours non-stop on a riddle does that make me crazy? »

Adds the doctor at the end of our meeting: « The three most important treasures in my life are my wife and two children. » His wife Claudine rolls her eyeballs heavenward, such platitudes will not wash with this woman much put-upon and surrounded by reminders of her husband’s endless hunt for the elusive owl — posters, diagrams, aerial photographs, charts, maps, photocopies and a shelf laden with model owls. He admits: « It is like being a drug addict. When I find a solution it is like a climax in my head. To be frank I think I will find it. Max has said I am in the top five people looking for it. »

Valentin is distressed by some of the repercussions of his game, but he evidently relishes the power and the feeling of intellectual superiority. But for how long can he maintain his current lifestyle? Why doesn’t he just tell everyone where it is? « It would be a betrayal. All these people would kill me. » And although he does not mean it literally, he does not miss the irony: « I’m a prisoner, » he says bluntly. So he would like someone to hurry up and find it? « I wouldn’t mind. Eventually I will wake up one morning and say enough is enough. It might be tomorrow or next month or next year. Then I will publish a clue that will turn the hunt into a race for the six or seven people who are closest to finding it. » Until then Valentin will continue to look over his shoulder wherever he goes. He leaves the café and hails a taxi. Tonight he expects to stay up to 3am responding to messages on his Minitel and one suspects that like his public Valentin himself has been ensnared — perhaps he is obsessed — by the curious search for his golden owl.