On the Trail of the Golden Owl, Lucrative Quest or Wild-Goose-Chase?

Becker's Statuette
The prized Golden Owl, sculpted and forged by Michel Becker.

In April of 1993, a man calling himself Max Valentin, buried a bronze replica of a golden statue said to be worth 1 million French francs. Valentin claimed that the statue, which resembled an owl in flight, was hidden somewhere in mainland France. The following month, he published a book called Sur la Trace de la Chouette d’Or. The book outlined a sophisticated treasure hunt, divided into 11 riddles. The endgame was straightforward: be the first to locate the bronze copy and you will receive the glistening original, constructed from gold, silver, and diamonds.

The challenge unleashed a torrent of armchair treasure hunters, known in France as chouetteurs, who have searched and dug in every corner of France since. Added to the intrigue was the identity of the clever puzzle-maker, Max Valentin. Valentin was the only person to know where the bronze replica was buried. In 2009, however, he died unexpectedly, leaving a community of chouetteurs in defeat and disorder. The mystery has yet to be solved but the coveted prize, now worth more than 150 million euros, rests in the hands of the sculptor who created it, Michel Becker. Over the years, Becker has grown tired of his role as safeguardian. Meanwhile, thousands of treasure seekers still hope to unearth the avian idol.

A Guide Composed of Puzzles

Valentin and Becker's Guidebook of Clues
Valentin and Becker’s Guidebook of Clues

It’s hard to glean what might have inspired Max Valentin to create a treasure hunt based on a golden owl. Valentin was a marketing professional and writer who claimed to have come up with the idea in the 1970s. In the early 90s, he decided to put his thoughts into action. He presented the project to the apparently well-connected artist, Michel Becker, who was able to secure a loan of 1 million francs to produce the fluttering golden idol. They described the statuette as follows: 10 inches (25 cm) high and 20 inches (50 cm) wide, weighing 33 lbs (15 kg), and made entirely of gold and silver with diamonds on the head.

Valentin and Becker spent the next 8 months producing a guide of 11 riddles, titled Sur la Trace de la Chouette d’Or. Each riddle, authored by Valentin, was accompanied by an illustration, painted by Becker. Both the text and picture provided hints leading to the location of the owl, which had been placed in a protective wooden coffer before being buried. Once all 11 riddles were cracked, however, there was still one overarching enigma hidden among all of the answers. Without this master solution, the location of the owl would be virtually impossible to discover.

Consensus has it that the above riddle points to the city of Bourges. For a breakdown of how this is determined, you might get a kick out of the rapid-fire explanation (in French) found in this amusing video (jump to 3:40 to cut to the details). The clip finishes by stating that the eye of the rooster, seen in the accompanying painting, lies directly above the point where Bourges is located on the map of France outlined in the background.

Location of Bourges, France
Location of Bourges, France in Google Maps

An Elusive Prize

Word of Valentin’s challenge quickly spread to treasure hunt enthusiasts throughout Europe. Thousands of treasure seekers rushed to solve the riddles but Valentin had also seeded his book with a number of false leads. Valentin’s intention had been to create a puzzle that could be solved with a few months of effort—one year tops. But as the number of potential paths to success multiplied, it became clear that the sole and final solution was eluding the growing community of chouetteurs.

Shortly after releasing his book of clues, Valentin created an online forum where chouetteurs could share their findings and send him questions to be answered publicly. The Internet was still in its infancy so Valentin hosted the forum on France’s Minitel system. In the 1980s, France launched the Minitel network and made smart terminals available to the homes of French citizens. People could use the terminals to dial into centralized databases where they performed simple tasks such as looking up phone numbers, retrieving the weather, purchasing train tickets, or checking stock prices. By the early 90s, forums were becoming popular and Valentin named his new online community MaxVal.

Eurasion Eagle-Owl
Eurasion Eagle-Owl, by Rhododendrites, a contributor to Wikimedia Commons

Max Said(s)

Max Valentin
The Mysterious Max Valentin

Perhaps perplexed that it was taking so long to solve his riddles, Valentin single-handedly manned the ValMax forum at all hours of the day and night. Over the course of the next 8 years, he allegedly answered close to 100,000 questions. Sometimes, his answers were direct. For example, when a group of chouetteurs was zeroing in on Notre Dame as the location of the buried treasure, he eventually weighed in to tell them they were wrong. However, he often gave his answers in the form of another riddle. He wasn’t about to give the solution away and insisted that seekers had all the information they needed.

If all the searchers put all their knowledge together, the owl would be found in… two hours.

—Max Valentin

Curious to know more about their guru’s identity, chouetteurs soon learned that the name Max Valentin was a pseudonym. Michel Becker appeared to be the only person who knew who Max really was and Becker was sworn to secrecy. Valentin, a skillful publicist, granted interviews with magazines, newspapers, and radio and TV shows but such interrogations were conducted over the phone to preserve his anonymity.

Many chouetteurs simply enjoyed the process of trying to crack the riddles. To do so, one needed to combine knowledge from several subject areas: art, history, literature, geography, science, music, and decryption. The searchers hung on every word uttered or typed by the unidentified Valentin, who was taking on the proportions of a beloved cult leader. The new clues were called “madits”, a contraction of “Max a dit” or “Max said”. Keeping track of which madits were valid and which were red herrings presented a new and arduous challenge.

Painting of an Owl, Charles Tunnicliffe
Painting of an Owl, by Charles Tunnicliffe, WikiArt

Financial Troubles

Theories continued to abound regarding where the owl might be buried. Some petitioned authorities for permission to dig in sites such as the Cathedral Sacre Cœur that towers over Paris or the gardens of Versailles. Others dismissed such fancies, assuming that the coveted curio must lie somewhere on public land where Valentin would have gone undetected while burying the wooden chest.

In 2001, with websites springing up to dissect and debate the latest hypothesis, Valentin shut down the MaxVal site. By this time, he had gained a reputation as a great treasure hunt creator and had authored new hunts for Paris-Match, Microsoft, and other large corporations and publications.

However, in 2003, unbeknownst to both Valentin and Becker, the original publisher of Sur la Trace de la Chouette d’Or, a company called In Folio, was going bankrupt. A third party, referred to as a bailiff, had been responsible for holding the golden owl in escrow until a winner located its double. However, in 2006, much to the horror of the chouetteurs, the public learned that the valuable statuette was no longer under the bailiff’s protection. Liquidators had seized the golden owl in 2004 and its fate was under dispute.

Owl on GInko Branch
Owl on GInko Branch, by Ohara Koson, 1915, WikiArt

Death of a Prophet

News of the seizure exploded like a bomb and distraught chouetteurs demanded that Valentin explain what was going on. He and Becker had initially been unaware of the owl’s decommissioned status but had since filed an appeal, alleging that the publisher had no claim on the bird. They asserted that Becker was the true and rightful owner. After all, it was Becker who had financed and undertaken the bird’s construction.

In 2009, the appeals court of Versailles agreed. The Golden Owl now became the property of Michel Becker who assured the devoted chouetteurs that he would continue to honor the original rules of the hunt. After a 3-year pause, the chase resumed with rekindled hope and interest.

Unfortunately, a few months later, Max Valentin died unexpectedly of cardiac failure. One of his closest friends blamed the stress of the lawsuit on the premature demise of the 62-year-old mastermind. It’s unclear how many people were still unaware of Valentin’s identity at the time of his death. His real name was Régis Hauser and according to one account, even some of his closest loved-ones only learned of his mysterious Max identity while attending his memorial service.

Two Owls and Two Chicks
Two Owls and Two Chicks, by Norval Morriseau, WikiArt

Not a Living Soul

Valentin had not only done an incredible job of hiding his true identity. He had also never revealed the location of the hidden bronze replica. Not even Becker knew where the chest was buried. Fortunately, Valentin had placed the solution to all of the clues in a sealed envelope. Presumably, the contents of the envelope would reveal the long-standing hiding spot. That envelope, became the property of Hauser’s son upon his death and resides in the custody of Hauser’s lawyer. Neither the son nor the lawyer have any interest in the outcome of the treasure hunt and have remained faithful to Valentin’s wishes that the envelope only be opened after a prize winner appears, the bronze replica in hand.

The years passed and still the puzzle remained unsolved with the bronze double entombed somewhere in France. Some chouetteurs had been working the clues for more than 20 years and treasure seekers had divided into various camps. One camp, called the Daboistes, was composed of searchers that believed the owl was buried somewhere around the town of Dabo, in northeastern France. Another camp, the centristes, adhered to the belief that the owl was buried closer to Bourges, in the center of the country. Apparently, some of these areas resemble battlefields, as they are riddled with holes dug by determined but mistaken chouetteurs.

Barred Owl, by Audubon
Barred Owl, by John James Audubon, WikiArt

Betrayal

Auction Catalog Pages
Auction Catalog Pages, c/o Rémy Le Fur & Associés

In 2014, the chouetteurs received yet another blow that sent them reeling. Becker had listed the gold, silver, and diamond-studded original with the famous Parisian auctioneer, Drouot. Becker’s statue was now worth an estimated 150 million euros and he was ready to auction it off. The odds of locating the buried copy seemed exceedingly small. At this point, many feared that the bird could well lie under a parking lot, or be lodged in the root structure of a mature tree. What if an uninformed person had found it long ago and never realized its trade-in potential? Becker was tired of waiting for the hunt to come to a successful conclusion and planned to share the proceeds with Valentin’s inheritors.

Days before the auction was to be held, an organization of chouetteurs, called l’Association des Chercheurs de la Chouette d’Or (A2CO) filed legal proceedings to stop the sale. Drouot withdrew the precious original and 4 additional bronze copies from its catalog. A2CO subsequently attempted to legally wrestle control of the statue away from Becker and back into the hands of a court-ordered bailiff. However, these efforts failed. Becker still possesses the owl and once again agrees to abide by the original rules of the hunt. Valentin’s son also remains committed to protecting the important envelope that contains his father’s complex solution.

The Little Owl, Albrecht Durer
The Little Owl, by Albrecht Durer, 1506, WikiArt

Motivations

It’s not clear what motivated Valentin and Becker to develop the hunt in the first place. Valentin had been thinking about creating such a challenge for years and he obviously enjoyed inventing puzzles. Once the hunt was underway, he gained additional work where he was paid to develop treasure hunts for commercial purposes. Certainly, royalties from the jointly produced guide, Sur la Trace de la Chouette d’Or, couldn’t have yielded just compensation for the time that Valentin invested in both creating the riddles and then replying to queries in his MaxVal forum for nearly a decade. But then again, Valentin never anticipated that the treasure would prove so difficult to locate.

Becker’s motivations, however, are even more obscure. He financed the construction of the owl and several bronze replicas, created the sculptures, and produced all of the paintings for the guide. Perhaps he’s been able to sell the paintings for large sums. Maybe publicity around the hunt translated to improved visibility for his other work and he was able to command higher prices and enjoy more frequent sales. Oddly, it seems that there was never a clear plan in place to compensate Becker for the 1 million francs that he alone secured and subsequently used to construct the statuettes.

As for the chouetteurs, motivations have waxed and waned over the decades. Estimates of the number of people that have tried their hand at solving Valentin’s puzzling treasure hunt lie between 100,000 and 200,000. If you’re interested in joining their ranks, you can buy a used copy of Valentin and Becker’s guide through Amazon. Prices range from $302 for the original hardcover edition, to $570 for a later edition paperback which adds several of the most important madits. Or, if you haven’t fully succumbed to Golden Owl fever, but are interested in testing your code-cracking prowess, you’ll find a free PDF here.

Other Resources

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

20 Comments

  1. mygarden436@gmail.com

    Quelle histoire, cette histoire de chouette! Je n’en avais aucune idée. Comme toujours, j’admire ton style!

  2. What an intriguing story, Carol! It’s new to me.

    • I wonder if anyone will ever find the replica or if Valentin’s heirs will open the sealed envelope and reveal the solution regarding where it lies. The players involved have been incredibly loyal to Valentin’s original vision.

  3. A very strange and interesting story. Merci.

  4. Encore une entreprise que j’ignorais complètement. Amusant et toujours si bien écrit! Merci, Carol!

  5. A very curious tale. I don’t think I’ve heard of anything like this before.

    It’s easy for a person who contrives a code or riddle to under-estimate how enigmatic it will be to anyone else. Really, it seems safe to assume that if so many people have been working on this for 28 years and still failed to solve it, nobody ever will.

    Valentin and Becker might have been better served to place a time limit on the contest when they launched it — say, that the offer would lapse if the hidden owl was not found within ten years. As it is, Becker and his heirs are stuck with a €150 million statue that nobody can ever truly own, since any attempt to sell it or otherwise treat it as ordinary property would likely be stopped by another lawsuit.

    • Very true Infidel. I think that if the bird is found at this point, it will likely be by chance. In Valentin’s defense, he went on to create several additional hunts that concluded successfully. I feel that Becker will eventually decide to fight the court ruling and that it will be overturned.

  6. OMG, so crazy fascinating. I had never heard about this

    • It’s always nice to hear from French people about such matters. I knew when I wrote this that Americans wouldn’t know the story but didn’t know how well it was known in France. Thanks for your comment.

  7. This reminds me of a graduate math class I took once. There were ten questions. The first nine were simple, for graduate-level algebra; but, the tenth was IMPOSSIBLE. All the questions were proofs but I couldn’t find a way to prove the last one. After a week, with the test due the next morning, I put something ridiculous on the page and went to bed.

    Suddenly, in the dark, it occurred to me that proving the tenth question would involve using all the work and proofs from the previous nine. I wrote it down in just a minute or two.

    One of my classmates asked about the tenth question. I told her. She was crestfallen.

  8. Carol,

    I left you a comment days ago, but I see it isn’t here. Obviously, I no longer remember the content (!) except that this was yet another fascinating story.

    Valentin’s obsession was extraordinary—apparently lethally so. I used to love scavenger hunts when I was young—but the wise old elusive owl takes them to an entirely new level.

    • Oh. I saw your comment Annie but for some reason it came in on my contact page and I wasn’t sure how to relocate it.

      Thanks so much for giving it another try. Interesting point about Valentin’s obsession possibly provoking his own demise. I hadn’t thought of that. I loved scavenger hunts too. My mother used to design them for my birthday parties. I carried on the tradition for my kids’ parties when they were young. Blogging is a lot easier.

      • The reason it came in on your contact page is that I’ve lost control of my emails. I recalled you’d written a post but couldn’t find it. So I went the long way around, meaning I had to add my ID info again. Not sure why it landed in Contact, but…anyway, I enjoyed the prize at the end of my personal hunt.

        But I fear the same thing is about to happen. What is the date of your most recent post?

        • March 26. Thanks for helping me track down a potential glitch. I think this may have happened in the past to someone else. I’m surprised that you had to re-enter your info. Once you’re in, you should remain in. Again, sorry for the hassle and thanks.

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