The French Revolution gave us liberty, equality, fraternity and the lost and found office.
Two hundred years ago, Napoleon ordered his prefect of police to establish an office on the Ile de la Cité for lost objects, the first of its kind anywhere.
"It was in the spirit of centralization," said Jean-Michel Ingrandt, 58, who left the Interior Ministry four years ago to become the office's latest director, now in the 15th Arrondissement. "To collect all objects found in the streets of Paris."
The anniversary is no large event in a nation that measures history by dynasties, empires and revolutions. To celebrate it, Ingrandt has hung the broad reception room where Parisians come to claim their property with photos of documents illustrating the office's history. What he cannot show is an immense warehouse under the reception room where unclaimed objects fill floor-to-ceiling shelves; even less so, what he calls the "cabinet of curiosities," including several human skulls, muzzle-loading pistols, a violin, a wooden leg and even two chunks of masonry from Ground Zero in Manhattan.
No Louvre or Musée d'Orsay, the office is nonetheless a kind of monument to the little man. Certain objects, like umbrellas, keys, wallets and handbags, resist time's tooth; others change with fashion and technology: men's cufflinks and women's hats, once common, are now rarities; cellphones, unknown a decade or so ago, now come in at the rate of 40 a day.
Most objects are found on means of transportation - in the Paris Métro, in taxis or buses or trains, at train stations and airports. The kinds of objects change by the season: in winter, skis; in summer, sunglasses and roller skates. "We are, in a way, a museum of daily life," Ingrandt says.
Last year, the office and its 43 employees took in more than 173,000 objects, 15 percent more than in 2003. Ingrandt attributes it to the pace of life today. "The modern world is in a hurry," he says. "We find medical files, student files, occasionally an entire doctoral thesis. That can have dramatic consequences."
In 1893, a legendary prefect of police, Louis Lepiné, laid the groundwork for a system by which the office not only waits for Parisians to claim their property but does detective work to find them. Still, only about one in four objects finds its way back to its owner.
Earlier this year, Ingrandt tracked down a woman in New York as the owner of pouch containing five cut diamonds, but also a doctor's business card.
The doctor was able to identify the owner, who boarded a plane for Paris to pick up her diamonds in person. "She was persuaded she would never see them again," Ingrandt said.
Not everyone is as satisfied. Cyrin Gamin, 28, came by during a recent lunch break with his companion to see if her backpack had turned up, after it was stolen containing all her identification papers. "They said to return in a month," Gamin said dejectedly.
Such is the daily avalanche of objects that they are kept for only three months, unless they are particularly valuable or unusual, after which they are destroyed or sold at auction. Even so, the office's immense warehouse is bursting with objects.
"A truckload arrives each day, just from the Paris subways," said Lean-Luc Faidherbe, 41, who has managed the warehouse for six years. Shelves from floor to ceiling are filled with keys, eyeglasses, motorcycle helmets, bicycles.
"The city government is pushing the use of bicycles," Ingrandt said. "So last year we received 51 bicycles."
Some objects are either so valuable or so bizarre that they are not discarded but displayed in a corner of the warehouse. Some are grisly: five human skulls, probably left by medical students; a mechanical leg. Some are historic: a Napoleonic-era saber; helmets, including one from a World War I French poilu, or infantryman.
Others are scientific: a tripod and telescope from Victorian England; a boxed set of 200 light blue butterflies.
In a small locked room nearby, Faidherbe stores the largest collection of any one kind of object: more than 3,500 cellphones, numbered and nestled on floor-to-ceiling shelves. More valuable items like phones or laptops are kept for 18 months to allow the owners more time to claim them.
"Every now and then," Faidherbe said, "one of them rings."