It’s the dead of night on April 24, 1993, somewhere in France. A man called Paul Régis Hauser has dug a hole to a depth of more than six feet. Out of necessity he’s done this furtively. For now he carefully places a bronze owl in the hole. So starts a treasure hunt that will last for more than 25 years. And the reward for the finder is another owl – this time in gold.
Buried treasure has been the romantic stuff of dreams for many centuries. Witness Roman historian Dio Cassius, who recorded one tale from the early second century. He wrote that King Decebalus of Dacia actually re-routed a river in order to bury a huge cache of gold and silver. After later restoring the course of the river, he guaranteed the silence of the slaves who’d worked for him by killing them all.
Then of course there were pirates, especially those who terrorized the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries. In truth few pirates really buried their treasure. They were too busy spending it on wine, women and song, while frittering away the rest. But the idea of pirate booty buried on a desert island was cemented in the public mind by the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson in the 19th century.
In the modern era, the credit for the beginning of a new wave of treasure hunts goes to the British author and artist Kit Williams. He published his book Masquerade in 1979. In the beautifully illustrated volume, Williams revealed a series of puzzles which, if solved, would lead to an ornately decorated golden hare. Studded with diamonds, it was buried in the English countryside.
Williams’ book was a huge seller, shifting hundreds of thousands of copies around the world. Hordes of treasure hunters dug holes in English fields, parks and woods. Then, in 1982, one Ken Thomas stumbled upon the hare, apparently by fair means. Later it transpired that Thomas may have had inside information, although there was no suggestion that this had involved Williams.
The Masquerade cheating scandal was bad enough, but another treasure hunt has had much more serious consequences. American Forrest Fenn was 80 years old when he buried a chest stuffed with valuables somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. The trunk was said to contain gold, diamonds and other treasure with a value of $1 million.
Fenn announced the treasure hunt in his book The Thrill of the Chase with a poem containing nine clues. But there’s a sting in the tail of Fenn’s challenge: no fewer than four people have died hunting the treasure in the sometimes treacherous terrain of the Rocky Mountains. To date, no one has found it.
Nobody has died searching for Paul Hauser’s buried treasure in France as far as we know – although one hunter is reported to have set fire to a chapel, thinking that the owl was underneath it. But judging by the volume and density of material on the internet about the treasure hunt, people are just as engaged with the project as those in America and previously in Britain.
In fact, Paul Hauser used the pseudonym Max Valentin to run his treasure hunt. After he’d buried the golden owl in 1993, he published a book called Sur La Trace De La Chouette D’Or, which translates as On The Trail Of The Golden Owl. And this slim volume – just 22 pages long – contained the clues that Hauser claimed would lead to the golden owl.
But who was this Hauser? He was born in the pretty town of Sarreguemines, in the French region of Moselle. We know little of his upbringing but he’s said to have been in a band with his brother as a youngster. Going by the name of The Tigers, the group gigged in Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany as well as France.
Hauser also had a spell as a rally driver in the 1970s before settling into a career as a marketing consultant. He was also enthusiastic about new technologies, and it this was passion that apparently led him into the world of puzzle making.
Hauser worked with an artist called Michel Becker who illustrated On The Trail Of The Golden Owl with 11 paintings. But Becker was never let in on the secret of whereabouts the bronze owl is buried. Hauser kept that information to himself.
In fact the buried owl is a bronze facsimile, made by Becker. The finder will be rewarded with the golden version, also a Becker creation, which stands 10 inches tall and weighs 33 pounds. It’s as valuable as it is weighty: back in 1993, the owl was reckoned to be worth around $170,000. In today’s money, that’s about $295,000.
Hauser’s book contains 11 clues, each illustrated by one of Becker’s paintings. Just to get a flavor of how tricky the clues are try this small excerpt: “My first, first half of the half of the first age, Precedes my Second and Third, seeking their way.” Got that?
Hauser claimed to have spent 450 hours creating the clues for his treasure hunt, a project he’d been mulling over since the late 1970s. But it was only when he met Backer that the plan came to fruition in 1993.
If solved, On The Trail Of The Golden Owl’s 11 clues, or enigmas as they are known, should lead to a particular French town. There the puzzler will find a 12th enigma. It’s said to be a collection of parts from each of the 11 original clues. Solve this 12th enigma, and you’ll have the exact location of the prize. But the fact is that no one has ever found the bronze owl.
When Hauser launched his puzzle in 1993, the internet as we know it didn’t exist. However, there was a distinctly French internet precursor called Minitel, which featured a messaging function. It’s been reported that Hauser received 100,000 messages containing queries and suggested solutions over an eight-year period via Minitel.
Now of course we have the full power of the modern internet and those still hunting for the golden owl make full use of it. But the collective power of the internet isn’t necessarily an advantage. Ardent owl hunter Pierre Blouch told the BBC in August 2018, “The point is that when he designed the puzzles, Valentin only had reference books. The internet drowns us in information that he himself did not have access to.”
Hauser died in April 2009, but fortunately he’d left the answer to his puzzle in a sealed envelope. Michel Becker, who retained the original golden owl, sparked fury in France in 2014 when he tried to sell the bird. Court action prevented him from doing so, though, and the owl is still in his possession, ready to be presented to the puzzle’s solver.
When Hauser launched his puzzle, he’s said to have believed that it would be solved within four to 12 months. According to the BBC, he even went as far as saying, “If all the searchers put all their knowledge together, the owl would be found in… two hours.” Yet here we are 25 years later and the whereabouts of the golden bird remains a mystery. If you’d like to join the hunt, the 11 enigmas are freely available on the web.