In October 1793, the same month that Marie Antoinette was beheaded, a Paris mob gathered in front of Notre Dame Cathedral and cried for the heads of more kings. The 28 limestone figures above the portals actually represented the kings of Judea and Israel, but the mob, thinking they represented French monarchs, cheered as fellow citizens tied rope around the statues’ necks, pulled them down and guillotined them in Cathedral Square. The statues were replaced in the early 19th century, but the originals—dating back to the year 1220—disappeared.
Nearly 184 years after the stone kings were decapitated, workmen enlarging a basement beneath Paris’ French Bank of Foreign Trade have made an eerie discovery: 21 of the two-and-a-half-foot-tall limestone heads (the others are still missing) and more than 300 other statuary fragments were found carefully buried within a wall of plaster three feet below the bank’s courtyard. It was left to François Giscard d’Estaing, the bank’s president and a cousin of French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, to link the discovery—one of the greatest archeological finds of this century—with the Notre Dame statues that had been torn down during the First Republic.
“I know history and the story of the revolution well,” says the nattily attired bank president. A descendant of the 19th-century French President Carnot as well as of a French revolutionary general, François, 50, grew up “like a brother” to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. As children, he recalls, they would go digging for pieces of broken pottery near their country home in an area that was once a village of ancient Gaul.
Today François, a bachelor, collects Asian bronze sculpture, Brazilian fossils and elephant tusks from yearly game hunts in central Africa. His years as an amateur collector paid off in the case of the disembodied heads. Suspecting that the heads—still bearing traces of the paint used on religious figures during the Middle Ages—were too big to have been transported far, he set out for nearby Notre Dame. He climbed up to the cathedral’s Gallery of Kings to study the detail and came down convinced that he had uncovered the long-lost Notre Dame heads.
Until Giscard’s discovery most experts agreed with the late French Minister of Culture André Malraux that the heads had been thrown into the Seine. But with the help of Michel Fleury, director of historic antiquities in Paris, Giscard found that the broken statues had been piled on the narrow street in front of the cathedral. In a clean-up campaign in 1796, the pile of stone and rubbish was sold by the state at auction to a building contractor, who used them to construct a new home for wealthy lawyer Jean-Baptiste Lakanal.
Lakanal, a devout Catholic, apparently decided to strictly obey the law of the church, which requires the burying or burning of religious objects which have been removed from a church. The heads were interred, all facing in the same direction.
“They were stupefied,” Giscard exclaims, describing the reactions of historians when he unveiled his find. The heads are now on display at the Cluny Museum in Paris. “It is an extraordinary coincidence that I should be the one to find them,” says Giscard d’Estaing. “I can only hope that the cousin of the president of the Fifth Republic can repair the misfortune caused by the president of the First Republic!”