“I’m very excited to see my castle for the first time,” said Maud, about 20, from Lyon, as she went on a guided tour of Mothe-Chandeniers, along with 20 other French co-owners of the château.
The 1,000 m² Château de Mothe-Chandeniers was bought by 27,190 people from 115 different countries, at the end of an online crowdfunding campaign by the organisations Dartagans and Adopte un Chateâu, which are dedicated to preserving French heritage. In doing so, they may have saved the château, which had been abandoned since it was ravaged by a fire in 1932.
With a price of 50 euros per share, they managed to raise 1.6 million euros, 900,000 euros more than the amount the owner was asking.“This extra money will allow us to begin the preservation work this autumn,” said Julien Macquis, founder of Adopte un Chateâu and one of Mothe-Chandeniers’ new co-owners.
Nature ‘gave the place a soul’
When the visitor discovers this château, surrounded by its moat, the words of another co-owner, Eliane Lamacque, about the place’s artistic character take on their full meaning. After the castle was abandoned, the influence of nature took over completely and “gave the place a soul”. Foliage emerges from the windows, in a façade reminiscent of a Venetian palace.
The inner courtyard, closed to the public, furthers this impression of a symbiosis between stone and plants in the château. No wonder it’s become a holy grail for tourists who visit abandoned buildings around the world.
For many of its new co-owners, it was the images of Mothe-Chandeniers published on the internet that made them decide to buy part of it. “I saw a video of the castle filmed by a drone and it was love at first sight,” said Maud. Such videos and photos went viral, giving the château international fame and prompting people from countries like China, South Africa, the US and Germany to buy a share.
Others have chipped in out of the desire to realise a “kid’s dream”, in the words of Dominique Saurais, a co-owner in his fifties. “I always wanted to take care of a historic building – a castle, if possible,” he said. Saurais has bought three shares in the château – one for himself, one for his wife, and one for his son. “It was a Christmas present for them,” he recalled.
He is not the only one to have bought several shares. One castle-lover bought 10,000 euros’ worth of them, while Marquis, of Adopte un Chateâu, acquired one for his 10-month-old son, who became Mothe-Chandeniers’ youngest squire.
Meanwhile its most famous new co-owners are French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte, who were given their shares as a gift from Adopte un Chateâu.
A business project
The acquisition of the castle might have been a huge crowdfunding success. But that was the easy part. Marquis now has to manage the castle – along with its 27,000 owners. A historian by profession, he must also take on the role of business leader. “There will be a board of directors to make the day-to-day decisions, and the co-owners will vote on the big issues through an online platform,” he says.
These decisions – from the most important to the most trivial – will come thick and fast. The architect is putting together proposals for development work, to start in the autumn. The co-owners will also have to decide on the best way to ensure that the château makes financial sense.
That’s why they have put forth the idea of re-consecrating the adjoining chapel, which would mean religious wedding ceremonies could take place there. Co-owners are also hoping the castle’s garden might be used for private parties.
There will inevitably be disagreements. Marquis does not expect the 27,000 owners to make unanimous decisions; ergo, a simple majority will be enough to decide on most issues. But he is confident that all co-owners have the same general vision for the château’s future. Notably, none of those interviewed by FRANCE 24 want to restore the building’s original appearance.
Rather, the idea is to preserve what Maud referred to as the place’s “current soul”, which gives it what Eliane Lamacque called its touch of “magic”. For example, the co-owners do not want to push nature out of the building, but prefer to ensure that the trees growing inside do not endanger the building’s structural integrity.
‘A new way of saving our heritage’
This focus on conservation is all the more important in terms of making sure that Mothe-Chandeniers is not just a project for fanatics of old stone. “There’s an economic interest behind all this: a château is what’s left when everything else in a village has gone,” said Marquis.
“So it’s a great tool for local economic development. That’s why I’m interested in restoring heritage: because it’s beautiful, but also because it creates jobs and wealth and bolsters local pride.” Marquis has already found two interns to sell tickets to visit the château this summer, and he hopes to be able to keep them on.
Consequently, Marquis does not want this crowdfunding campaign to be a one-off. “Some people told us that it was a big success, but it was just one success, when in fact what we are proposing is an entire new way of saving parts of our heritage that no one can save on their own.”
Of the tens of thousands (between 30,000 and 40,000) of French châteaux, Marquis estimates that around 600 are at risk. He argues that protecting them is not merely a means of preserving the past – it is also provides an economic future for rural communities. Thus, while he is doing everything to open Château de la Mothe-Chandeniers to the public starting in 2019, Marquis is also preparing another online campaign to buy another castle in this autumn.
We will see then if he has indeed created a new economic model, or if it was just the extraordinary character of château Mothe-Chandeniers that set off such a stir.