Michel Becker, the illustrator of the Chouette d’Or, has officially taken ownership of the management and organisation of this long running treasure hunt. The announcement came via a video press release on October 30th 2021, followed by a text press release. Several more strange developments in this hunt have followed, as part of the ownership handover.
In April 2021 the original sealed envelope of solutions created in 1993 by Max Valentin was transferred from Regis Hauser’s family to Michel Becker, and to his trusted legal bailiff, Blanche Neige-Schmitt. (Hauser is the real name of treasure hunt author, Max Valentin, however, I use his pen name ‘Max’ throughout this site.) A contract has been set up passing all rights of the game from the heirs of Regis Hauser to Michel Becker and his company Éditions de la Chouette d’Or®
The bailiff wrote a report detailing this handover. It describes how Max’s envelope of solutions contained a protected file on a floppy disk, which was written in 1993 on word processing software that is no longer supported. As the bailiff could not decipher the old file, Michel Becker worked to decrypt the .sam format file. The text of Max’s solution was finally presented to the bailiff on October 22nd 2021. The bailiff checked the solution text and validated it as real in her opinion.
Michel Becker and the bailiff travelled to the location mentioned in the solutions to check if the buried bronze owl was still there. They hoped they could confirm the owl’s location so the hunt could continue under their new management.
In 1993, when the game launched, Max Valentin stated that a bronze, varnished replica of the golden owl was buried around 40-50cm from the surface, with some kind of protection from metal detectors. The owl was cast as one of eight replicas of the solid gold bird, and marked with a number 1/8. Along with the owl Max said he placed a phone number, a password and details of what to do when the bird was found. The bronze owl replica, when found, would be swapped for the valuable gold owl prize.
On the evening of October 22nd. Becker and the bailiff went to the owl’s location and measured a distance, as specified in the ‘super solution’ to then dig a hole. At around 80cm under the earth they found a rusted iron bird wrapped in a plastic bag. The bag had the numbers S09 2005 written on the plastic. Becker has speculated that the iron bird was placed in the ground by Max in 2005. Max Valentin died in April 2009, presumably knowing that there was a replacement bird at the location? It is not clear why the bronze owl was replaced, or where the bronze owl marked 1/8 is now.
As Michel Becker wants the treasure hunt to continue in good order, he placed a new bronze owl marked 2/8 in the ground. He also added an envelope containing new instructions and password for the finder of the bronze countermark. It seems he had brought a second bronze owl with him on his digging mission in case it was needed.
Becker, the new organiser of the hunt, has released various official documents through his new company. On the website a new set of game rules has been published (the unofficial English version is here – for information only.) There is also a form to fill in if you dug for the owl at a date before October 2021 and want your solution checked. Presumably this is because there was rusty iron buried deeply, and not a crafted bronze owl at the location? Owlers can send in their solutions until December 31st 2021, they will be checked by the bailiff in January 2022. Anyone who has the correct solution will be told, and asked to dig up the bronze owl to fit the rules of the game. It is worth noting that this form seems to be intended for use by those who dug in the past… However treasure hunters outside France may be tempted to use it to check their solutions, without paying for an expensive plane fare!
Various reports and minutes from the bailiff have also been published online, giving legal legitimacy and certainty to what has happened with the hunt in the last few months. The golden owl has seen a few complex legal cases over the years, and there is currently an ongoing challenge from Yvon Crolet who appears to claim the owl was never buried. He states that he solved the clues but discovered the owl was not there at the final location, so he is challenging the game organisers. As part of the work to put this treasure hunt in good order, Becker asked the bailiff to check the solution submitted by Crolet. She confirmed that this does not match the location she had visited, or details of the solution that were devised by Max Valentin.
This unusual situation, and mysterious rusty iron ‘bird’ has certainly got the owler community talking! It is possible we will never know why a replacement ‘treasure’ was placed in the hole, and by whom. Here are a few ‘best guesses’ that are being discussed.
There were legal complications around the hunt in 2004 – 2005, with the publishing company going bankrupt, so some theorise that Max removed the bronze owl for some reason related to that. It doesn’t seem very obvious how an iron bird not a bronze owl connects to this story. If someone presented an iron bird to Max then he would know they had solved the hunt, and presumably give them the bronze owl marked 1/8? But why would this ruse be needed?
Max told a friend that he dug up the bronze owl marked 1/8 many years after it was buried. He said he wanted to check if the paperwork had survived. All phone numbers in France had changed so the old one listed with the owl was invalid. However, a clear detail of this story is that he wanted to place new paperwork with the owl. Yet with the iron bird there was no kind of paperwork at all.
It is understood that Max wanted to protect his game in the event of his death, yet leaving an iron bird in the ground effectively destroyed this great hunt altogether. The rules state that the bronze owl replica must be swapped for the real gold version. If someone had found an iron bird then they would get nothing. If the rusty iron bird has been in the place specified by the super solution since Max’s death, no one could win the game in all those years!
One theory doing the rounds is that Max might have left a false trail on the floppy disk, so the true solution has not been written down anywhere. This could mean that Becker and the bailiff dug in the wrong place, fooled by Max with a false solution. This seems unlikely, and would lead to an awkward situation with two buried bronze treasure hunt owls and both 1/8 and 2/8 now buried somewhere in France.
Another theory is that an owl hunter dug up bronze 1/8 and didn’t exchange it for the gold owl, leaving an iron bird in the hole. This seems highly unlikely for obvious reasons!
There are some who suspect Michel Becker of something illicit in this situation, but in my opinion it is in his best interests to keep the hunt going and to make it respected. He will want to sell copies of his clue book, and promote his golden owl museum in Rochefort.
If a winner of the hunt is declared any time soon they will certainly come under great scrutiny. Two people now know the solutions, but previously no one living knew the owl’s location. However in every treasure hunt we have to have a degree of trust in the integrity of the game and its organisers. As strange as all this is, I do think this game will continue, and be just as enjoyable to play as ever.
The mystery of the rusty iron bird is a strange one, and equally mysterious is the location of bronze owl 1/8. I’m going to keep working on this hunt, and I’m planning my next trip to France soon. One way to look at this is that the hunt is now more exciting than ever, when we dig we don’t know if we will find owl 1, owl 2, more rusty iron, or, nothing at all and back to the drawing board!
Michel Becker seems to be having a little fun with the missing owl twist, offering a reward to the presumed owl 1/8 finder who perhaps chose not to claim a golden reward…. The following post has appeared on the Les Editions de la Chouette d’Or® social media accounts.
At least it seems finding either owl 1 or owl 2 wins a reward!
Note: The details and images used in this article are from the reports written by the bailiff, Blanche Neige-Schmitt, that have been widely shared online through websites, forums and on social media The photos remain copyrighted to the author of that report. I share them here aiming to bring clarity to the English speaking seekers of this treasure community. Additional colour photos of the site can be found here.