Headed for Auction Block: Voltaire's Chateau

A battle erupts over whether it should belong to "the people" or wealthy outsiders

Save Voltaire! This cry is on the rise on both sides of the ocean these days, two centuries after Voltaire's death. The philosopher both credited and blamed for setting the French Revolution in motion is making waves again.

This time, it's not Voltaire's legendary irreverence of church and kings that has people so worked up. Rather, it's what's going to happen to his chteau, an 18th-century estate set in the shadow of the Jura Mountains where he lived for 20 years before his death in 1778.

Owned by one family for generations, this site - precious to many lovers of freedom throughout the world - is about to go on the auction block. But a battle has erupted over who should own the place - "the people" or wealthy outsiders who some worry might show little interest in preserving its historical value.

Philosopher built town

In Ferney-Voltaire, a town of 7,500 near the Swiss border, Voltaire is still known as "The Patriarche." The philosopher largely built the town, transforming it from a backward region of Louis XV's kingdom into a thriving European intellectual center. During his years at the chteau, Voltaire earned his fame as a pioneer of free thought and an inspiration to America's revolutionary founders.

When news broke a few months ago that Voltaire's home was up for sale, a feeling of uneasiness settled in the community.

The Lambert family - which has owned the chteau as its summer home since ancestor Claude-Marie David bought it in 1848 - says it can no longer afford to maintain it. Ms. David's two great-granddaughters have entrusted the British auctioneer Christie's with the sale.

In Ferney, people are concerned that should foreign investors purchase the chteau, it could face the fate of other chteaux, which, during the mid-1980s and early '90s, were damaged by the real estate practices of Japanese magnate Kiko Nakahara. Ms. Nakahara - who created uproars by emptying several historic chteaux of their treasured furniture, tapestries, and paintings - is being investigated for selling historic furniture illegally.

Concerns over foreign buyers have thrust the Ferneysians into a bold crusade to preserve their cultural legacy and "save Voltaire." Citing the recent Nakahara case of architectural vandalism, Georges Vians, Ferney's mayor, vows to prevent the Voltaire estate from drifting into foreign private hands.

"This was a man who didn't write only to entertain. He fought for individual freedom, freedom of speech, human rights," Vians says of the author of the two famous essays on society and politics: "Le Dictionnaire Philoso-phique" and "Le Trait sur la Tolrance."

"He was a great spirit; when one is lucky to have such a heritage, one has a special responsibility to exploit it."

Since February, Vians has lobbied surrounding towns to buy the Voltaire place - the chteau, chapel, dependencies, and 17 acres of parks and farm. Vians envisions an international cultural center for persecuted artists and thinkers that would draw scholars and tourists.

Across the Atlantic, American Voltaire fans have joined the fray, raising $5,000 thus far.

"This is not like any old chteau. This is where Voltaire spent the most important years of his life," says Voltaire scholar Gary Apgar, who co-founded the New York-based Voltaire Society of America after learning about the sale.

America's ties with the writer and philosopher are strong. "Voltaire spoke to the Founding Fathers even though Thomas Jefferson never actually met him," says George Gowen, board chairman of the Voltaire Society of America. (His New York law firm helped create the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which helped save Monticello.) Jefferson admired Voltaire's sense of justice, Mr. Gowen says.

Americans are at home with Voltaire's humor and down-to-earth spirit, so perfectly embodied in the writer's famous tale, "Candide." It was an American composer, Leonard Bernstein, who first turned it into a musical. "With his lack of self doubt, his often naive, optimistic faith in progress, Voltaire does seem more American than French," Mr. Apgar says.

But the campaign to "save Voltaire" is also angering some in Ferney-Voltaire. They find the concept expensive for a small town. With unemployment soaring, some Ferneysians are worried that spending millions of dollars on a chteau will drive local taxes up.

"It is easy for people sitting in the mairie [town hall] to get excited and say, 'Let's save Voltaire,' but when you have so many people without jobs, is it fair to ask them to pay more in taxes?" asks Lorraine McGilchrist. Her mother, Claude Poulain-Lambert, with her sister owns the Voltaire domain.

When Ms. Poulain-Lambert decided to sell the mansion, she wrote to the French government office that manages local historic properties asking if it wished to acquire the chteau. She retained Christie's, the British auctioneer, only after failing to get an answer, Ms. McGilchrist says.

Chteau owners outraged

McGilchrist says her mother was outraged when town officials suggested the family wanted to maximize its profits without regard for Voltaire's legacy. After all, her family bought the chteau toward the end of the 19th century when it was a desolate shell.

McGilchrist's grandmother turned two of the chteau's 30 rooms into a memorial exhibition open to the public on summer weekends. Today, when the chteau is open to the public, visitors can see, for example, Voltaire's original bed; Maurice Quentin de La Tour's 1736 portrait of the writer; and a portrait of Marie Thrse d'Autriche, mother of Marie Antoinette, given to Voltaire in 1770.

Pascal Meylan, a former long-time mayor of Ferney accuses the current mayor of spreading false fears about private buyers. "The owners are aware of their mission," says Mr. Meylan, who's been the Lambert family real estate lawyer for years, "but given the investments they've made in the house, they wish to get some kind of financial return."

For the time being, what happens to Voltaire's legacy seems to hinge on money. Under local zoning laws, the town has priority to buy the chteau, but there is disagreement on price: Vians says it's worth $2.5 million, but that's only half of what Christie's estimates it is worth. Negotiations between the parties are continuing.

With 1 percent of its budget devoted to culture, France already owns hundreds of chteaux, and pays for part of the restoration costs of France's 37,000 privately owned historic monuments. The tradition of private or corporate giving in France is timid, and the French have traditionally relied on their government to preserve their cultural heritage. Yet that is changing.

The minister of culture is talking about creating a framework for a privately run foundation akin to the British National Trust, with tax breaks encouraging individual memberships and corporate sponsors.

'Best of all possible worlds'

Voltaire was much like his hero in Candide, who crossed mountains and seas to escape wars and inquisitions in search of the "best of all possible worlds." At 65, he had never owned a permanent home. He had always been on the run from angry church or government authorities.

Ferney was an ideal place for Voltaire, close to the Swiss border where he could flee easily if he was being pursued.

Candide discovered that the secret of happiness is to "cultivate one's garden." Voltaire did just that at Ferney. He farmed, built a school, and took his role as lord of the manor seriously. He was revered by peasants, providing them work and building them homes.

Extending his garden to the world, he used his pen as a mighty sword to fight injustice and inequality. In a 1764 letter, Voltaire wrote of his efforts to free Jean Paul Sirven, a Protestant accused of murdering his son to prevent him from converting to Roman Catholicism: "I've been pursuing the case for five years, but when you fight for innocence and truth, you can never stop." Sirven was acquitted in 1771.

Of the chteau controversy, one wonders what Voltaire's own position would be. The eternal enfant terrible who infuriated so many, no doubt would have been amused by it all.

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