At 3:30 a.m. on the night of April 23, 1993, in a secret location somewhere in France, a man was struggling in pitch darkness to dig a hole in which to bury something stored in the trunk of his car. “I hadn’t even finished and my hands were bloody,” he said later. said to Liberation. “When it was done, I went away to have breakfast. I looked at myself in the cafe mirror. I was barely recognizable, disheveled, covered in dirt.
The man, known to thousands of French people as Max Valentin, had hidden a small bronze owl sculpture, the instigator of what was to become one of the the longest treasure hunts. The location of the site could be guessed by solve 11 puzzles – a combination of fiendish language games, map numbers, historical allusions and mathematical puzzles – published in a book, On the Trail of the Golden Owl, which sent amateur treasure hunters to poring over maps and walk through obscure villages with metal detectors. Whoever unearths the owl would win an identical sculpture, made of gold, silver, rubies and diamonds, and worth 1 million francs (about €150,000, or £126,000, in currency). today). But, with the precision of a puzzle, Valentin died exactly 16 years later, on the night of April 23, 2009, the owl having still not been discovered. He is still there now.
“I’m really interested in obsession and the different ways it manifests in people’s lives,” says British photographer Emily Graham, whose new book The blindest man follows some of the hundreds of owls (owl hunters) still on the trail. Its title refers to one of the clues of the hunt, a riff on the proverb “There are no more blind than those who will not see”. She quickly became engrossed in the details of the golden owl story – especially the absurd tenacity of those involved. “Treasure hunts were a fun way for me to explore these human characteristics. There’s almost something childish about the way people get lost in the chase, which I found appealing. There is a sense of wonder that is often excluded from adult life.
Anyone caught up in the Pokémon Go mania of 2016 would understand – but it seems doubtful this game will still be running 30 years from now. There is an association, A2CObringing the owls together on internet forums to scrutinize the 11 enigmas; the first reveals their order of march according to the wavelengths of color, and the following ones should gradually pinpoint a dig site somewhere in France. “My First, first half of the first half age / Precedes my Second and Third, seeking their way…” begins the octet of the first true enigma; it is accompanied by an illustration of a rooster with a halo of the map of France – alluding to its geographical significance. Since 2003, some of the 165 members of A2CO meet once a year at an annual convention. After so long, the hunters split into factions – for starters, there are “daboists” who believe the locality is the northeast village of Dabo, and “anti-daboists”.
Graham’s book captures this free-for-all problem solving, with its photographs of mysterious road wrecks suddenly imbued with meaning, and owls apparently gripped by the revelations. For her, this work of research and interpretation, and the paths of fantasy and disorientation that it can lead to, was analogous to her profession. “There was a rich fantasy world tied to the researchers,” she says. While the clues were seemingly based on logic, players’ searches often led them into the realm of fiction and fantasy, plagued by flawed solutions. “In the field of documentaries, the photographer is often presented as a hunter and recorder of truths. But many critics counter this by looking at the photography’s bias. I wanted to draw a parallel between the treasure hunter and the photographer in order to reflect on the slippery relationship of photography to truth.
Valentin had fun fueling research in playful exchanges with treasure hunters on Minitel, a pioneering pre-internet French telecommunications system. He sent 6,000 messages, full of enticing hints and red herrings, in the first three months alone. Valentin’s real name was Régis Hauser; the former marketing consultant created On the Trail of the Golden Owl in collaboration with artist Michel Becker, who designed the sculpture. It was the latest in a trend of armchair treasure hunts started by Kit Williams’ book Masquerade in 1979, which put British readers in search of a golden hare; perhaps Hauser was also influenced by the quasi-RPG setups of game shows such as Fort Boyard and its British counterpart The Crystal Maze. Over the years, Valentin’s collected statements (called cursedor “he-told me” in owl language) were given hadith-like weight by the community, and the game master gained mythical status.
Since 2014, Graham has photographed 10 owls and accompanied two in their quests. “What I found fascinating was that a lot of them always felt like they were close to finding the owl,” she says. Cédric Delepaut, 50, organizer of nature discovery walks around Aveyron, would agree. He was part of the original wave of 1990s players, but came to a halt in 1998 for 10 years. Then a chance conversation about treasure hunts got him excited again, and he decided his original theory was wrong. “When I reopened the book, I found a lead that no one else had and I knew I had to keep going,” he says. “It occupies your mind day and night. You don’t sleep when you find something new. It’s like a drug!
But the hunt has led some to places of disillusionment, or worse. A few scholars began to doubt that the Byzantine riddles had a definitive solution. One believed that the prize was framed and Valentine was trying to kill him. Generally, the late playmaster is revered, but Becker is a more controversial figure for some. owls – especially after trying auction of the original gold sculpture in 2014, claiming the game was null and void after Valentin’s death (the sale was ultimately cancelled).
Yvon Crolot, a 78-year-old retired Parisian engineer, spent 20 years hunting the owl – but now alleges the hunt was a ‘fraud’ from the start, and nothing was originally buried on it place with the metaphorical X. He believes that the riddles have specified a location, and that he has found it: on the side of a mountain in the commune of Lus-la-Croix-Haute in the Drôme. But he came back from his search empty-handed. On the 25th anniversary of the treasure hunt in 2018, he filed a lawsuit against the heirs of Valentin and Becker in an attempt to force them to reveal the solution (the lawsuit is still under review).
A former criminal investigator, Crolot has been conducting his own independent investigation for eight years. “I’m trying to understand how hundreds of thousands of people have been exploited to such an extent,” he says. Becker says Crolot is frustrated with his fruitless search, but will not respond to specific charges while the court case is active. He says he put the owl up for sale at a time when he was “fed up” with the game, but has since fallen in love with it again: “I am fascinated by the human side, the community of players is extraordinary. .” As part of an effort to keep interest in the game going, he recently dug up the now heavily corroded bronze owl and replaced it with a substitute.
Despite his claims, Crolot concedes that Valentin’s original entertainment had some genius. “I took as much pleasure in the owl hunt as in the enigmas that justice offered me,” he says. And the journey, not the ultimate destination, is where Graham sees the real beauty. She quotes another owl, quoted at length in the book, whose motivations aspire to a higher level: “It’s quite a way of seeing for her – a kind of spiritual pursuit. It’s about looking and appreciating the world, and seeing signs around you. It’s quite beautiful the way she talks about it.