Losing things is part of being human. Your wallet can fall on the floor of a taxi. Your phone could slip from your pocket on the bus. You might set your camera down on a bench and forget to pick it back up. If you're very lucky, you may be able to track down your misplaced possession. If you're in Paris, retrieving it might just be an adventure.
On the city's rue des Morillons, you'll find a massive storage facility with a fascinating collection: everything that's been lost in Paris. The Service des Objets Trouvés, or Bureau of Found Objects, is a centralized lost and found. Things misplaced at airports and museums, on trains and buses, or simply dropped in the street all make their way here to be categorized and stored, waiting for their owners to arrive. The office receives more than 500 items every day.
The Bureau of Found Objects is administered by the police prefecture, part of the French Ministry of the Interior. It's a relatively modern operation now, but the French have been in the business of reuniting people with their things for centuries. During the Middle Ages and under the Ancien Régime, (the feudal system that ruled the Kingdom of France until the French Revolution), "lost objects must be brought back to the lord who must then have the find publicly announced three Sundays in a row," a media representative of the police prefecture writes in an email statement. "In the absence of a claim, the objects go to the lord."
The History of the Paris Lost and Found
In 1804, the lost and found system was centralized and the police prefecture took over. "The Prefect of Paris required the police commissioners to bring to the prefecture the found objects that would have been deposited in their offices," the statement reads. Still, the service wasn't very well-known or widely used until 1850, when it moved into a new building on rue du Harlay (near the Palais de Justice). It took off and, according to the prefecture, "nearly 10,000 objects were deposited there every year."
In 1939, the office moved to its current location: a huge basement space at 36, rue des Morillons. According to Colleen Shaughnessy-Larsson, who's been writing guides to lesser-known Parisian spots on her blog, Colleen's Paris, for more than a decade, the architecture and aesthetic of the building that houses the Bureau of Found Objects is part of what makes it unique. On her visits to the ornately wood-paneled office, "it gave the atmosphere of a step back in time," she says in an email interview.
In 2004, the Bureau celebrated its 200th birthday. The prefecture stops short of calling it the first lost and found office of its kind (though The New York Times did in 2005), but certainly, they say, "it is one of the oldest in the world."
While Shaughnessy-Larsson notes that "the back room is filled with shelves of tagged items," the goal of the office isn't simply to house Paris' misplaced items. Their work is much more proactive.
The Mission of the Bureau of Found Objects
"The main mission of the lost property service is to collect forgotten or lost effects ... identify the owners and keep them until they are handed over to them," according to the prefecture. "In the best case, an object found may be at the home of its legitimate owner the day after its arrival at the bureau."
The office's employees spend a great deal of time and effort reuniting people and their things. Items with a return address — like wallets containing IDs and driver's licenses — are easy enough to mail out. Other lost items are reclaimed by owners who come looking, speak to someone at a window, fill out a slip describing the thing they've lost and pay 11 euro in "custody fees."
"I have a success story," says Shaughnessy-Larsson. "A couple lost their camera while on vacation." The couple reached out to her and asked that she take a trip to the Bureau of Found Objects on their behalf. "With the description, I eventually found their camera at the lost and found office."
Sometimes, if an item's been turned in by an individual, no one has come looking for it, and the office has been unable to find its original owner, the classic principle of "finders keepers" applies.
"The unclaimed object can be made available to the person who found it (the inventor) under certain conditions," says the prefecture. "There is an exception to this principle: Objects containing personal data cannot be returned to inventors. In particular, computers, tablets and smartphones fall into this category of objects."
Unclaimed items that might contain sensitive data are eventually destroyed. Other things, after a certain period of time, "are handed over for sale for the benefit of the State," according to the prefecture. Auctions are held for items like "latest-generation jewelry, computer, telephony and photographic equipment and any other valuables."
A Museum of the Strange and Unclaimed
A small collection of unclaimed things — the particularly interesting, historically significant or just plain weird — is displayed in a corner of the storage area that functions as a small museum of sorts.
"Some are grisly," wrote John Tagliabue for The New York Times, referring to a collection of several human skulls and a decades-old prosthetic leg. "Some are historic: a Napoleonic-era saber; helmets, including one from a World War I French poilu, or soldier. Others are scientific: a tripod and telescope from Victorian England; a boxed set of 200 light blue butterflies."
In recent years, the Bureau of Found Objects has undergone a technological upgrade and begun offering shipping. Now, it's possible for a loser to "record the loss of his object, pay the custody fees online and receive his object at his home," says the prefecture. "The service is intended to be simple. The shipping service, newly set up, is a great success."
Every day, objects lost in Paris are boxed up and sent off, back to their homes around the world: "a suitcase in Japan, a wallet in Singapore, a comforter in the United States." According to the prefecture, "the joy of finding your lost object is universal."
The Service des Objets Trouvés, or Bureau of Found Objects, of the Police Prefecture is located at 36 rue des Morillons 75732 Paris cedex 15.
In 1893, Louis Lépine, the legendary prefect of police, laid the groundwork for the system still in use today, by which the office not only waits for Parisians to claim their property, but does detective work to find property owners. Still, only about one in four objects is reunited with its owner.
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