Henry Samuel

Somewhere in Britain and France lie the two halves of a key to a £650,000 golden casket which sealed the end of almost 1,000 years of conflict between the two old foes.

That, at least, is the claim of the co-author of the world’s longest-running treasure hunt.

Michel Becker says he bought the solid-gold casket celebrating the 1904 Entente Cordiale agreements between the UK and France at an auction and has had it authenticated by the jewellers who wrought it.

The French artist is famed for sculpting a golden and silver owl in flight buried in mainland France in 1993 and for drawing the illustrations of the book required to find it. More than a quarter of a century later, the riddle of La Chouette d’Or (The Golden Owl) remains unsolved.

While the quest for the Chouette continues, Mr Becker is about to launch a fresh hunt, this time on both sides of the Channel, for the “Golden Treasure of the Entente Cordiale”.

Two books, one in English, one in French contain nine puzzles, which once solved lead to the richly-decorated casket that King Edward VII gifted French president Emile Loubet to seal the Entente Cordiale.

Signed on April 8, 1904, it was in fact a series of agreements between Britain and France on issues from colonialism in North Africa to fishing rights in Newfoundland more than a century before Brexit.

“It was a really important treaty that held off the First World War literally for 10 years,” said Stephen Clarke, author of 1,000 Years of Annoying the French, who wrote the historical account of the Entente Cordiale in the treasure hunt books.

While the text covered “rather unpleasant colonial territory”, it was a hugely symbolic step marking “the fact that Britain and France were now allies so there couldn’t be war between them,” he said.

Mr Becker, who is due to launch the hunt in France and the UK on the anniversary of the agreement, said: “I came across this casket by coincidence. It had long remained in the Loubet family and his heirs sold it to a family who sold it to me two years ago.”

“I found it staggering that your king had handed it to our president,” he said, adding that he was happy it was now back in the public eye.

The Entente Cordiale, which came at a time of high Anglo-French tension, is a testament to Edward VII, said Mr Clarke, describing the monarch as a “very underrated diplomat” who “misspent his whole youth in France hanging out with Can-Can dancers, actresses and aristocratic wives and became a true Francophile.”

“We all think of him as Downton Abbey garden parties and failing to see the arrival of the First World War.

“In fact, he was completely the opposite and spent his whole reign trying to rein in the Kaiser [Wilhelm II, German Emperor], his mad nephew who wanted war and was trying to get Edward and the Tsar [Nicolas II of Russia] – another grandson of Queen Victoria’s – into an Anglo-Russo-German alliance against France.

“Indeed, France may owe its survival as a modern nation to the Entente Cordiale” which was signed “against the flow of history” at the time, he claimed.

Made by the Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company, jewellers by appointment to the crown, the casket contained a roll of parchment inscribed with a text celebrating Anglo-French friendship and, on the lid, a golden sculpture, the allegorical figure of Peace crowning France and Britain with laurels.

Some would-be hunters may be put off by the fact that the other treasure hunt for the Chouette d’Or has still not been solved. The man who devised that hunt, Alas Valentin, himself is no longer alive to help. He died 11 years ago, leaving his secret inside a sealed envelope which is now in the possession of his family.

Some fear the spot where the owl is buried in France has been built over or that the clues are just too fiendish to be solved, or even that it was all a hoax from the start. One hunter has launched legal action.

Mr Becker, who holds the original owl and casket in a secret location, conceded that the owl hunt may have been a tad tricky and that its creator may have included “subjective” clues almost impossible to solve without his help.

The new treasure hunt would be eminently solvable as created by a professional escape game designer, and the riddles more based on spot-the-difference-style enigmas than some of the mathematically complex codes of the former hunt.

He added: “The casket is in a transparent chest with a rather complicated lock. Half of the key is buried in France and half in the UK… There are nine illustrations in each book with the ninth different per edition.”

It thus requires a new Entente Cordiale between an English and French-speaker to solve. As for the timing of the launch, he insisted the current Covid pandemic was not an obstacle as the casket can be found “practically without leaving one’s home”.

In the age of Brexit, Mr Clarke said: “Anything that can unite our two countries at the moment is great.

“The thing about Brexit is that it is very political. A treasure hunt is completely the opposite and is in a way in the spirit of the Entente Cordiale because Edward VII was trying to ignore ongoing politics and just say: ‘We’re friends.’”
Source: The Telegraph