For nearly 30 years, this treasure hunt has brought together tens of thousands of players in a frantic quest involving wild excavations, low blows and even lawsuits. Based on mysterious clues from a book, this treasure hunt has turned into a flourishing business, while keeping thousands of hunters hooked over decades.
PARIS — Philippe Portier lives a double life. The lawyer, who for 18 years was managing partner of Jeantet, one of Paris’ oldest and most renowned business firms, travels the world for his clients. And when he has some time to spare, he searches for the golden owl.
When the corporate finance and M&A specialist talks about this treasure, his eyes sparkle.
“Each enigma contains a cryptogram and a visual. There are eleven, but we now know that a twelfth is hidden in the previous ones. It might be a meta-riddle, the one that gives the final solution,” he says. He produces an annotated book, scribbled with clues and calculations: “On the trail of the golden owl.”
He is not the only one to fantasize about the strange bird. Thousands of mystery lovers all over France are still looking for the famous “golden owl,” which remains unsolved to this day.
The person who hid the treasure died in 2009 and took his secret with him. Since then, between legal and internal struggles and dramatic twists and turns, the community of “chouetteurs,” or "owlers," is lost to conjecture, but refuses to let the matter of the golden owl go.
11 riddles written like parables
The story of the golden owl opens like a bad detective novel.
On the night of April 22 to 23, 1993, at 3 a.m., a man buries an object somewhere in France. The man, who calls himself Max Valentin, has just concealed a bronze owl statue, an artifact — at least this is what was believed at the time. The original, a gold and silver owl covered with diamonds worth 1 million francs (150,000 euros), was somewhere in a safe — a real treasure.
The community grows each day.
To recover it, treasure hunters must solve eleven enigmas, written like parables, contained in a book of about 60 pages published a few weeks after the nocturnal burial: On the trail of the golden owl signed by Max Valentin and Michael Becker, two accomplices who joined forces.
The first — no one knows who he is at first — hides under a pseudonym. The second is an obscure artist. Becker illustrated the book, and sculpted the golden owl. The legend is on: soon, thousands will be looking for the precious bird.
Sharing clues on Minitel, precursor to the World Wide Web
In France, it’s the beginning of the Minitel, the videotex online service accessible through telephone lines, which became the world's most successful online service before the World Wide Web.
Valentin has the brilliant idea of using the famous system to answer the treasure seekers' questions. Between June 1993 and December 2001, a community is created around the man who distills his clues, like a guru. Very quickly, the “madits,” a contraction of “Max a dit (Max said)”, are scrutinized and analyzed like oracles. Nearly 40,000 messages are exchanged between players.
The community grows each day.
In 1995, there are 150,000 people participating in the quest. Radio and TV broadcasts, as well as newspaper articles, devote themselves to the tireless researchers who sometimes give up all reason for the golden owl, the object of all fantasies.
The mystery fascinates as much as it deepens, because there is another secret: who is Valentin, who reigns over this motley community of chouetteurs? The wildest theories are put forward: a showbiz star, an eccentric billionaire.
The Golden Owl by French artist Michel Becker
A flourishing business
The reality is more prosaic. Behind the pseudonym hides a marketing and communication specialist: Régis Hauser. Not very glamorous, but he was already in the habit of organizing seminars in the form of treasure hunts for companies, and knows all the tricks of effective communication.
His secret was well-kept until his death in 2009.
In the meantime, he understood that the business side of things could flourish.
Under his nickname, he created games of the same type for major brands (Microsoft, Hermès, among others) to showcase their products and attract new customers. “The treasure hunt is a vector of promotion that adapts to absolutely everything,” he told the microphones of France 3 TV channel in 2003, wearing a balaclava so as not to be recognized.
Daboists and Antidaboists
The same year, the chouetteurs organized themselves and founded the Association of Golden Owl Researchers (A2CO). With the arrival of the Internet, Valentin abandoned the Minitel service, leaving his followers somewhat helpless.
But the chouetteurs remained busy. Some believed they had located the secret hiding place in the small village of Dabo in Moselle, north-eastern France. For years, the poor village endured an onslaught of hordes of chouetteurs who dug everywhere without repairing the holes.
But not everyone agrees on Dabo as the hiding place. Clans formed between “daboists,” “antidaboists” and “non-daboists” and the dispute still rages today.
In 2004, sacrilege!, the publishing company of the book was placed in judicial liquidation. A safe was seized with all its contents, including the famous golden owl. The first legal battle began and lasted four years.
It was Becker, the artist, who ended up recovering the precious bird since he is the author charged, the Court of Appeal of Versailles says, to hand it over to the winner of the enigma.
French artist Michel Becker (left)
Death of the master
But on April 24, 2009, there was another earthquake: sixteen years to the day after burying the owl, Valentin died. Could the game continue? A question all the more distressing as the heirs of Régis Hauser were slow to make themselves known. The A2CO decided to take matters into their own hands and got in touch with them, who told the chouetteurs that they had given the answers to the riddles to a court bailiff whose identity they did not share.
The owl has not yet finished revealing all its secrets.
During this time, things became increasingly tense with Becker.
In June 2014, the chouetteurs learned that the artist had decided to sell the golden owl at an auction. The A2CO succeeded in having the sale cancelled. Today, Becker says he wanted to “stir up a hornets' nest".
Whatever his reasons, Becker remains the master of the game, and of the royalties. Now in charge of the La Chouette d’or editions, he offers goodies involving the game and even reproductions of the famous animal on the company’s website.
Fantasy machine relaunched
Last October, as the game fell silent, Becker revealed that he had signed an agreement with Valentin’s heirs.
This brought new life to the world of the chouetteurs, who learned that Becker had access to the solutions and that the hiding place “has remained unchanged since 1993 and corresponds to the nearest centimeter to that resulting from the resolution of the final enigma (‘super-solution’),” as the artist wrote on his blog.
Is this new turn of events a media stunt to maintain the fantasy machine, and royalties? Nobody knows. The mysteries do not seem to discourage the chouetteurs, who remain numerous, as if the quest itself has become more important than the discovery of the solutions.
“These repeated twists enliven the quest, but also harm it a little,” Portier says, slightly doubtful, even if he continues to take out his pencil from time to time to try to solve the puzzles. The owl has not yet finished revealing all its secrets.