10
Red Herring, Rara Avis

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But is that the case? Was it a hoax? Or is there a ghost of a chance that the treasure really existed? Usually, the answer to that question must be a most resounding No. Both common sense and a hundred known fiascos suggest that all such ‘military’ hoards like the Treasure of Ney are sheer nonsense. Countless fables of the kind have risen to fame throughout history. Every major war gave birth to a number, and people have gone looking for buried military bullion in every conceivable country and time. But whether one speaks of the Hoard of the Persians, the Tomb of Alaric, the Confederate Gold or the countless Nazi war chests sunk into inky Alpine lakes, not one such treasure has ever come to light. Nor has anyone ever been able to prove that one was truly entrusted to the earth at the end of any war.

And yet, bizarre as it may sound: the Santiago treasure may be the one exception to the rule, the rara avis among the shabby lot. There are many things wrong with that tale of Mol: his name, his life story, his allegiance during the Peninsular War and perhaps even the bare existence of that looter friend of his. But just possibly his claim that there was a treasure hidden in Santiago was not so terribly far-fetched; for the circumstances under which Ney’s church plate disappeared are essentially different from those of all other fabled ‘military’ hoards. It was not hidden, like the Confederate gold reserves or the Nazi ingots, by a defeated army in the chaotic last days of a lost war, but only at the time of a temporary setback. The Peninsular War was still young in June 1809, and far from lost. The notion that Napoleon’s invincible armies would in the long run be beaten by a motley bunch of stone age peasants armed with pitchforks and led by priests, was totally absurd. Therefore a return to Santiago when French fortunes had improved, must have seemed quite conceivable to Marchand and his staff. Under such circumstances, to bury a heap of confiscated church plate, which you cannot take along but are loath to leave to your enemy, makes perfect sense. And the fact that we do not know what happened to the recollected remnants of the church plate at the time of the final French withdrawal, speaks in favour of such an almost ‘inconceivable’ possibility.

However that may be, the fact remains that earnest, well-informed government officials lent Mol a willing ear, and considered his tale of treasure sufficiently plausible to sponsor his cause.

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