‘This is not an easy treasure hunt’: puzzle book offers readers chance to win €750,000 golden casket

Clues in The Golden Treasure of the Entente Cordiale could lead readers in the UK and France to a historic treasure presented by Britain to the French president in 1903

The casket presented to French president Émile Loubet in July 1903 ahead of the signing of the Entente Cordiale on 8 April 1904.
The casket presented to French president Émile Loubet in July 1903 ahead of the signing of the entente cordiale on 8 April 1904
The casket presented to French president Émile Loubet in July 1903 ahead of the signing of the entente cordiale on 8 April 1904

Last modified on Wed 7 Apr 2021 23.37 EDT

For all the armchair puzzlers for whom sudokus and crosswords have palled over the long months of lockdown, a fiendish new literary conundrum is about to slide on to bookshelves – with a rather lucrative and unusual reward.

Artist Michel Becker tracked down and bought the golden casket given to France by the UK ahead of the signing of the entente cordiale on 8 April 1904, which attempted to end centuries of antagonism between the two countries. Presented to French president Émile Loubet in July 1903, the casket was wrought by Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Company in London and contained a scroll celebrating friendship between the two countries. Valued at €750,000 (£646,000), the intricately decorated box is now the prize for whoever solves the clues in Becker’s forthcoming treasure hunt book, The Golden Treasure of the Entente Cordiale.

An engraving showing the Lord Mayor of London presenting French president Emile Loubet in July 1903.
An engraving showing the lord mayor of London presenting French president Émile Loubet with the casket in July 1903. Photograph: Chris Hellier/Alamy

A French version and an English version of the book are published on Thursday, with each containing different clues leading to two separate locations. Each book contains nine puzzles, made up of illustrations by Becker, and secret text hidden in the accompanying story, written by Pauline Deysson. Readers must crack the hidden code in the illustration to find the missing text, which will help them solve the conundrum. Once all nine puzzles are solved, readers will be able to find where two geode crystal keys have been buried, one in the UK, and one in France.

“It was Michel Becker’s idea. He found the golden case, bought it, and learned everything that you can know about the entente cordiale. He fell in love with this story between France and England, which existed thanks to the will of the two men [King Edward VII and Loubet]. He wanted to bring this story to the world with this treasure hunt,” said Vincenzo Bianca, who created the puzzles. “Michel is an artist. He does things that some won’t understand but which amuse him. He doesn’t hope to make any money from this operation, but at least he hopes to break even. If people are passionate about the adventure, he will have achieved what he wanted.”

“A paper and a pencil will be enough to discover some solutions. For others, you will need to do additional research … the internet will be a valuable ally in finding the information you need without leaving your chair,” write Bianca and Becker in the book. “This is not an easy treasure hunt. In order to conquer it, you will need tenacity: a treasure is accessible only to the brave.”

The front of the Entente Cordiale casket.
The front of the entente cordiale casket. Photograph: PR

On finding both crystals, which have been buried in chests along with documentation, the treasure hunters will be able to put them together to open the cabinet where Becker is keeping the casket. “You could say it requires a new entente cordiale!” said organisers, although they add that “one and the same bilingual person” could theoretically find both crystals, “or even a single team of seekers that could include English and French players”.

The book also contains a history of the entente cordiale written by British author and historian Stephen Clarke, author of A Year in the Merde. Clarke said he saw the treasure hunt “as a timely reminder that rows about who gets doses of vaccine are temporary hiccups in a long-lasting and key alliance”.

“The entente cordiale of 1904 postponed the first world war by 10 years and meant that when it did come, the two sides were even. It also meant that the Brits stood by the French in 1939-40,” Clarke said. “My only regret is that the text of the entente cordiale itself is very shoddy. If you read it, it’s a sordid agreement between two colonial powers – ‘we’ll let you have Morocco, if you keep your hands off Egypt’. I think we need a new text, a renewal of the vows, simply restating that the British and the French are neighbours and allies, so that the entente cordiale has a deeper and more modern sense to it.”

Clarke said he had no idea where the treasure was hidden, but that he had seen the casket, “and picked it up and sniffed it”.

“It is a very solid hunk of gold. I’m very surprised it’s not in a museum or reclaimed by the French state,” he said, adding that “there’s no danger of that, in case treasure hunters are worried”.

French artist Michel Becker.
‘He does things that some won’t understand but which amuse him’ ... Michel Becker. Photograph: PR

Becker previously illustrated Max Valentine’s legendary treasure hunt book Sur La Trace de La Chouette d’Or (The Hunt for The Golden Owl). Published in 1993, it contained 11 puzzles which, if solved, would locate the golden owl sculpted by Becker. It has never been solved.

The quest to find the golden owl followed the sensation which greeted the 1979 publication of Kit Williams’ Masquerade, an illustrated book that contained clues to the secret location of a golden hare. Masquerade sold two million copies around the world, with the riddle finally solved by two Manchester teachers in 1982. However, they were beaten to the prize by a reclusive hunter who had found the location through a link with Williams’ former girlfriend.