Our Own French Château

Once we got a beautifully illustrated book showing a number of French châteaux up for sale. We couldn’t believe how cheap they were. Châteaux are normally not expensive, but this was during the first year of Mitterand’s 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 heating—a 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 wasn’t 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 floor.

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 didn’t 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 château’s 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 gravestones—oval 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.


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