The haggling is over a small, damp cavern hidden for 20,000 years under the rugged cliffs behind Pierre Coulange’s farmhouse.
Coulange, whose family has owned the land for 600 years, doesn’t want to sell. The government won’t take no for an answer - there are about 300 prehistoric wall paintings offering a spectacular glimpse into man’s distant past.
Discovered in December by three vacationing archaeologists, the cave is a scientific treasure trove that could help fill the gaps in Stone Age history. The walls are adorned with animals of the glacial era, the floors littered with hearths, flints and the bones of bears still in their hibernation nests.
Located in the Ardeche, a south-central region known for harsh terrain and stubborn soil, grottos and subterranean rivers, the cave art is thought by some experts to outclass the famed Lascaux caves in the Dordogne region.
Coulange, 47, a bank manager and amateur speleologist, is well aware of the find’s significance.
“It’s very exciting, and I’m very, very touched that it’s on our land,” he said in a telephone interview. “But we still don’t want to sell. It would be a sacrilege.”
The Coulanges may have no choice. French law empowers the state to appropriate property for the good of the country.
“The goal of the state is to ensure the long-term preservation of the cave, not to plunder the Coulanges,” Bernard Notari, a technical adviser at the Culture Ministry, said in a telephone interview.
“Only the government is capable of that, because only the state can spend without counting, and only the state has access to the necessary scientific and technological means,” he said.
Regardless of ownership, the cave will be sealed off to the public. Human breath and pollution brought in from the outside could destroy the drawings of horses, lions, bison, bears, panthers, mammoths, owls, wild oxen, ibexes and woolly rhinoceroses.
The fragile prehistoric paint is generally made from ochre or charcoal mixed with oil, water or other liquids.
Notari said lawyers for both sides are trying to negotiate a fair price for the land.
“It’s just a question of numbers. If we can’t reach a friendly agreement, we’ll go before a judge who will fix a price and transfer ownership.”
But Coulange’s lawyer, Caroline de Foresta, says she’s in the dark about the details of any agreement in the works. The state’s lawyer, Jean Martin, did not return several calls.
De Foresta wants to know if the family will receive a percentage of profits from photographs and videos taken inside the cave.
“That’s where the dispute started,” she said. “The government took pictures and distributed them worldwide without the owners’ consent.”
Notari agreed the real issue is cave’s potential marketing value.
“The cave itself is worthless, and it’s on land that is virtually worthless,” he said.
Notari said the government has already spent considerable sums to close off the cave. Then comes the additional cost of putting in airconditioning and a prowler-proof lock system.
Coulange said he plans to manage a replica of the cave that would be open to the public, similar to one created at Lascaux.
Notari said he hoped local and regional associations would ultimately be able to cash in on what could be a popular tourist attraction.
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