The Loetschental Valley, Switzerland
It was Saturday and by noon an astonished representative of Sotheby’s was on the scene. After reviewing the contents of the trunks, he took Jake and Rachel to an upstairs room where he breathlessly opined that the portraits and larger landscapes were very probably the work of Vincent Van Gogh and, if that were true, each of them could be counted on to bring over a hundred million dollars at auction.
“I can’t be as confident about the other works. Those smaller canvases, the ones with the little crowds and priests and women in gowns, are much, much older. I can tell that by the materials and the dimming of the colors. I don’t know this for sure, but I think this old series – there are ten of them here – might be commemorations of the wedding of Mary and Maximilian.”
At this, Rachel raised her eyes to Jacob, wordlessly asking him for an explanation or at least a request for an explanation.
“Who were Mary and Maximilian?” Jacob asked.
The Sotheby’s man was obviously pleased to be called on: to have his sophistication recognized.
“Mary was the daughter of Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy. Maximilian was the son of Frederick III, the Emperor of the Habsburg dynasty. Their marriage, in 1477, was arranged by their two fathers for the purpose of preserving the Duchy of Burgundy which was in that day the wealthiest nation in all of Europe and comprised of territories that are now parts of France, Germany and Belgium. Charles was getting along in years and he wanted to insure that his country would remain intact after his passing. He knew, or at least he felt, that the Habsburg house was the only power in the world that could insure that. On the other hand, Frederick was tickled pink to receive into his empire the overwhelming wealth of this rich land. What is important to us now, though, is the story of what Frederick did to try to impress the Duke at the time of the wedding. History tells that the Emperor loaded 500 carts of treasure and commissioned his army to carry the bounty from Vienna, some 700 miles, over river and mountain to Ghent, Burgundy, as a token of the beneficence and power of the Empire.”
“I guess Mary must have been impressed,” said Jacob.
No doubt she was, but the important part of the story, for our sakes, at least, is for now apocryphal. It is this: legend has it that one of the five commanders of this gigantic transport, his name, according to the legend, was Corvallis, rebelled along the way and diverted 100 of the laden wagons to a cave in the Eifel uplands, about two hundred kilometers east of Ghent.”
“That’s interesting, but why is it of particular importance to us . . now?”
“Well. There are 114 known caves in Eifel Uplands, most of them quite remote. There have been many searches carried out over these last 500 years, in an attempt to recover this stolen bounty. None of them successful. That is one of the main reasons the story of this mutinous action is doubted by many today. But I think . . . and I am by no means sure of this . . . that the old map in the trunk here marks the spot where the treasures were hidden. Marks out that cave.”
“We could go there?” Rachel asked.
“Yes.” said the man.
“Do you have any idea of what this treasure was . . . is?”
“Some of it is ruined, undoubtedly. If there really was any such. Some of it would have consisted of textiles. Tapestries, gowns, finery of all kinds. Clothing for Mary, undoubtedly. But we can be fairly certain that at least some of it would have survived fairly unharmed. There would likely have been stacks of precious metals – gold and silver bars and ceremonial weapons and armor forged of gold and silver. There would have been jewelry made by the best artisans in the Empire, set with emeralds, sapphires, rubies and diamonds. And more paintings, of course.”
“One hundred wagons full?”
“Well. The mutiny started with 100 wagons. We might assume that some of the soldiers, knowing that they would face execution if they ever returned to Vienna, appropriated some of the loot to themselves. But even if there are only ten wagons remaining in the cave, it would still be a find unparalleled since the opening of Tut’s tomb.”
Rachel looked at Jake. “I guess this means that I won’t have to beg the bank for a loan anymore.”
“Rachel, you can buy the bank.”
“What of this cave in . . . where is it, now?”
“The Eiffel uplands. On the border of Germany and Belgium. It could be in either country. The map in your trunk of course does not show modern national boundaries.”
“What if we did find it?” She asked. “What then?”
Jacob was now back in his element. He responded. “It’s a legal thicket. The law may be different in Belgium than it would be in Germany, but in either case there will be rival claims. If the cave is on private property, the landowner would have some share in the recovery and, given the historical character of the find, it is almost certain that the nation – either Belgium or Germany – will claim part of it. If the cave is located on land owned by the nation, then you can bet that the government will claim all of it, subject, maybe, to some kind of finder’s fee. Then there is the whole issue of how you might go about any attempt to find the cave. It might not be as easy as finding a nearby hotel and a nice pair of hiking boots. It may be very remote country and any effort at exploration would be likely to draw attention and maybe trouble. In fact, youj may not even have the right to go onto the property. Then there would be the whole matter of international diplomacy.”
It was quiet for a moment as Rachel pondered these complexities. Then the Sotheby’s man held forth again. “This particular situation may be unique. One of the marks of the wealth and power of the state of Burgundy was its control of the chivalric Order of the Golden Fleece. It was an order of knighthood established by Mary’s grandfather and it carried high privileges. Once the order was bestowed on a knight he was no longer subject to the judicial processes of any nation, but could only be accused and only tried by his peers within the order. After the marriage of Mary and Maximilian, and the death of Mary’s father, Charles the Bold, mastery of the order passed to Maximilian and the House of Habsburg. Control of the order has been kicked around over the centuries – it was once usurped by Napoleon Bonaparte – but the order still thrives, it has taken in four new members in this twenty-first century – and it has long since returned to the control of the House of Habsburg.”
“Again,” Jacob asked, “what relevancy to us? We’ll be subject to the laws of the United States, no matter what the Habsburgs give us.”
“The Habsburgs believe the story of the mutiny. They believe in the stolen carts. They believe that the carts carried treasure of such value that their recovery could go a long way toward restoring the authority and majesty of the family that ruled over Europe for over 500 years. They think the carts contained not only gold and silver, but books of ancient and medieval wisdom that contained secrets of the guilds and the church and the doctors of the day. There is a secluded, mountain valley located in what is now Switzerland – the Lötschental – where the people were so physically strong and beautiful that the Vatican recruited all of its guardsmen there and the nations of Europe sought the men of the valley to be mercenary soldiers. Dukes and kings searched there for brides. Those people never got sick. The fifteenth century was the age of plagues. The cities were now large and crowded and there was no sanitation. All kinds of infections and diseases ravaged the continent. But the Lötschental soldiers and guards – and their women – never contracted the plagues. The carts are believed to contain the history of that people and all of the lore of their diet and lifestyles. There are, the Habsburgs still believe, true Apostolic writings that were once considered for canonization on some of these carts. Writings of the Apostle Paul. Things that could change the world.”
“Fascinating. But what effect on us?”
“There is a reward for the recovery of the treasure. If the information leading to the recapture of the treasures is forwarded to the House of Habsburg and if the treasures are recovered, the finder will be knighted into the the Order of the Golden Fleece.”
“What could that possibly mean to an American?”
“For this old house, it would mean plenty. It would mean that this place would become an aristocratic seat. You would expect visitation and patronage from the House of Habsburg. That would mean endowments large enough to fund schools and hospitals. It would mean inclusion in the social affairs of the Habsburg circles. You would be invited to races and showings and weddings and the like. The house could receive artwork and artifacts from the Habsburg collections. On loan, of course. This place would become a worldwide destination.”