Sunday, 30 April 2017

The lost treasure of Joseph Pâris Duverney

Here is a curious little story of grave robbers and mysterious lost treasure - sadly there are no Knights Templar or lost bloodlines, otherwise it could have been made into a bestseller...

Jean-Baptiste II Le Moyne, 
bust of Pâris Duverney,   
Musée de Brunoy
On 17th June 1770 Joseph Pâris Duverney, intendant of the École militaire, and the last of the four great financier brothers Pâris, died at his hôtel in the rue Saint-Louis in the Marais.  He was 86 years old. The funeral service took place at his parish church of Saint-Gervais.  Duverney had stipulated in his will in 1766 that he wanted to be buried in the cemetery of the École militaire, "if burials had been authorised by the time of his decease".  In accordance with his wishes, his body was transported to the École and on 20th June it was laid to rest, not in the cemetery but in the crypt of the public chapel, still under contruction at the time. On this occasion the priest of Saint-Gervais, the abbé Bouillerot, delivered a funeral oration before the clergy of the Hôtel Royal.  A further service took place in the private chapel of the cadets on 9th August. On the anniversary of Duverney's death, on 17th June 1771 a full memorial service was also held, again in the pupils' chapel.  In 1773 Duverney's body was joined in the crypt by that of the chevalier Jacques René Croismare, the former governer of the École.  No monument was ever erected to either man, perhaps it was still intended at some point to transfer the bodies to the cemetery, which did exist but remained much smaller than had originally been planned (Laulin (1933) p.133-4; 137)

In the years after his death Duverney's name was kept in the public eye by the protracted and well-publicised legal battle which ensured between his heir,  the Comte de La Blâche, and his protégé, Beaumarchais. Unsurprisingly, there was speculation his estate was worth far more than had been openly declared. 

Here is the account of subsequent events, taken from a publication of 1860:

The Chapelle Saint-Louis today 
A great deal of astonishment  was caused by Duverney’s modest legacy [1,500,000 livres] for public opinion held that he was worth 20 million livres.  People wondered what had become of the immense riches of the great financier, who had always been so fortunate in his speculations.  Strange rumours abounded; there was talk of treasure hidden away for some mysterious purpose. However, interest died away in the turbulent years of the Revolution and  Duverney was so thoroughly forgotten that, even fifteen years ago, his name was unknown in the École militaire which he had founded.

A chance event  brought back to mind both his name and his treasure.

In 1846, during repairs to the floor of the chapel of the École militaire, an old lady reported that she had heard from her father, a sacristan before the Revolution, that there existed close to the altar, a crypt containing coffins.  This claim seemed unlikely, for there was no monument or inscription in the chapel,  nor any sign that one had ever existed.  However, investigations revealed that one of the stone slabs to the right of  the altar concealed  the entrance to the crypt that the old lady had described.  The investigators went down and the engineer in charge found two coffins.  One belonged to Duverney:  a copper plaque attached to it bore an inscription to him].

The two coffins were in a state of perfect preservation, as if they had been put there only yesterday.  In the earth could be seen clearly the footprints of the last priest or friend who had left, eighty years previously, after paying their final respects. The coffins were left as they had been found; all that was done was to replace the stone  slab with one of a different colour to mark the spot.

One would have supposed that such a minor event would have gone unnoticed.  But in certain circles news spread and memories of the mysterious hidden treasure were revived, though in whose  mind we do not know.  All seemed forgotten when  in 1848 a general who boasted one of the most illustrious names of the First Empire  appeared at the École militaire with authorisation to look for treasure.  All the buildings were searched with great care...but to no avail.  

That is not all.  Last year [towards the end of 1859] an unknown person, who imagined himself better informed, took advantage of the absence of the  chaplain insinuate his way into the chapel at night , lift up the stone into the crypt and conduct a thorough survey.  No doubt frustrated by his lack of results, this man seems to have fallen prey to a kind of madness and  imagined suddenly that Duverny must have with him, in his very hands perhaps, a paper  or sign which would provide the searcher with some clue. Without hesitation he took a sacrilegious hand to the coffin, broke it open  and rifled thoroughly through the clothes of  the body.  The cadavre kept its secret.

Several days later, when the violation of the sepulcre was notice, a judicial enquiry was began, which we are assured is still ongoing at this time (May 1860)
Adolphe Rochas, Biographie du Dauphiné, vol.2 (1860), p.222

There are certainly strange goings-on here; but the identity of the general, and the information the intruder was acting on remain a mystery.

A detailed history of the chapels and clergy of the École militaire, which was published in the 1933,  adds only that the judicial enquiry was abandoned.  In 1901 the Commission du Vieux-Paris once again rediscovered the crypt and noted the inscriptions on the two coffins. In Spring 1929  a party accompanied the architect responsible for Historical Monuments on an inspection.  They lifted up two flagstones, and decended by an iron ladder.  They were impressed by the dryness of the earth and the perfect state of the walls and vault. The two oak coffins rested on iron tressles and were still open.  Both contained inner anthropomorphic lead coffins; Duverney's still showed signs of the damage which had been inflicted on it and was resoldered (Laulin (1933) note, p.157-8).

In 2015 as part of a programme in the series" L'Ombre d'un doute", the inside of the crypt was filmed for the first time.  The presenter here is Marc Cheynet de Beaupré, successful banker and author of a two volume biography of Joseph Pâris-Duverney.  It is quite moving to see the two coffins exactly as described:


Adolphe Rochas, Biographie du Dauphiné, vol.2 (1860), p.222

R.Laulan, "Les chapelles de l'École militaire et la vie religieuse dans l'ancien hôtel royal", Bulletin de la Société de l'histoire de Paris et de l'Ile-de-France, 60, 1933. p.108-185.

L'ombre d'un doute - "Louis XV, l'homme qui aimait trop les femmes" broadcast 5th January 2015

Here is small relic of Joseph Pâris Duverney, a altar bearing his arms which he presented to the parish of Nogent on the occasion of his reception as Seigneur of Plaisance in 1721.  After being in the museum in Nogent since 1959, it was recently restored to the parish church of Saint-Saturnin.  The château de Plaisance itself survived the Revolution only to be demolished in 1818. Only a small pavillion remains, today part of the  maison de Santé, 30 rue de Plaisance.

Château de Plaisance, Nogent on the website for the exhibition, "Madame Du Châtelet:  La femme des Lumières"(2011)

"L'autel de Pâris-Duverney de retour à Saint-Saturnin", Nogent-sur-Marne website

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