Once we got a beautifully illustrated book showing a number of French
châteaux up for sale. We couldnt believe how cheap they
were. Châteaux are normally not expensive, but this was during
the first year of Mitterands socialist government and his tax
on large fortunes (surtax en grosses fortunes). The château
owners were faced with paying tax on all their works of art and having
to put a value on priceless antique furniture, magnificent tapestries
and paintings. They were sick of it all and ready to bail out of their
châteaux. We made a three-day survey of a dozen or so and chose
a lovely château built in 1690 in Louis XIV style including
its extensive forest, elegant grounds, orchards, corral, swimming
pool, central heatinga dream place only one hour from the Charles
de Gaulle Airport. Our total cost was 1.5 million French francs, which
due to the favorable exchange rate once again caused by the Socialists
regime, was only 300,000 U.S. dollars. The dollar replacement cost
of the château, even if it would be possible, would be easily
five million U.S. dollars. We were also resigned to losing most of
our investment but it wasnt that much anyway. We were resigned
to paying the gross fortunes tax and undoubtedly additional
property taxes, which took advantage of foreigners. None of those
things happened; the gross fortunes tax did not apply to foreigners
for some strange reason. When we finally sold the château seven
years later we got twice our investment back, even including all the
improvements we had made, and the local assessment taxes did not budge
during our ownership.
There is an interesting story as to why we were well received locally.
Our predecessor châtelain (that is what they call owners of
châteaux), a man by the name of Gaillard, had moved in with
his wife and nine-year-old son who was attending the local school.
Gaillard passed the word to the local schoolmaster and the other children
that his son Max was to be called Master Max, the usual
term of deference due to the son of the châtelain of the village.
This was a traditional French setting; the château was the commanding
property in the village, and in the old days the villagers probably
all worked at the château. But the Napoleonic Revolution of
1787 had supposedly ended the perks of the aristocracy. The term
Master Max went over like a lead balloon at the school
and the poor kid soon left the school and began commuting to a school
in Paris where he became simply Max.
Leticia and I and our three-year-old son, William, were welcomed like
a fresh breeze; we fixed up the château, made friends with the
mayor (who was an extensive landowner) and made business with the
local tradesmen. We were well acquainted with the local carpenters
(who came in three forms: the menuisier who did wood work, charpentier
who did windows only and parqueteur who did floors) plus the local
electricians and plumbers. We were admired for bringing in the first
fax machine to that whole area; it was French-made and called a telecomputeur.
Leticia and I also got to know all the major antique dealers in Paris
as we lovingly furnished the château with furniture of its own
period. This love affair with antiques was soured one weekend when
we were in America and our guard was sound asleep at the château.
A large van moved in and stole all the items they could fit in the
van, including the most valuable chimney facing in the castle, taken
from the master bedroom at the end of the corridor, on the second
We still look back on the château life as a Cinderella-type
experience. Our son William has never forgiven us for selling it but
then he didnt have to spend our many days a year administering
an extensive property, leaving hardly any time to enjoy it. William
first learned to walk in one of the long corridors of the château
and later learned to ride his little bicycle in the same corridor.
He came to enjoy himself at the tiny French school which he attended
at the age of 3 1/2 in the lovely neighboring community of Braine.
He liked exploring our châteaus forest and the little
empty cabin he discovered there. He enjoyed riding a bicycle with
me to a nearby town and repeatedly visiting its cemetery. It was in
this cemetery that we first discovered the use of émaux on
the gravestonesoval shaped porcelain images of the people in
the grave so you can see who is buried there. Made of porcelain, the
émaux last forever even in direct sunshine. On one grave, William
found the picture of a little girl his age who had died prematurely.
This made a big impression on him.