How do roughly 280 tons of valuable objects disappear from France’s most prestigious auction house? Simple, prosecutors allege: They were stolen by those on the inside.
The exterior of Hôtel Drouot, Paris. Image via Google Maps.
Update: Sept 7th, 2016
A Paris court has sentenced 35 porters and three auctioneers accused of theft as part of this case. The convicted porters received sentences of up to three years, with 18-month suspended sentences. In addition, they received fines of €60,000 each. The auctioneers were each slapped with fines of €25,000 and suspended sentences of up to 18 months. The sentences are lighter than what the public prosecutor in the case had asked for: prison sentences with a maximum of five years. On Tuesday, the court ordered that the 110-strong union to which the porters belong be dissolved.
The Case of the Cols Rouges
On Monday, more than 40 art handlers and four auctioneers from Hôtel Drouot, the venerated Parisian auction house, found themselves on trial charged with organized theft, conspiracy, and handling of stolen goods. Prosecutors allege that over the course of several years, possibly even decades, members of a tightly knit society of art handlers systematically stole thousands of valuables—including jewelry, furniture, and a painting by Gustave Courbet—from the auction house in a scheme reportedly called la yape (the pilfering).
The trial, expected to last for roughly three weeks, is the culmination of a multi-year police investigation into the secretive, 110 member-strong art handlers organization which for 164 years provided their services to Drouot. Lawyers for the defendants attempted to have the charges thrown out on constitutional grounds (one of the defendants allegedly didn’t recieve a lawyer), and while the judge has yet to rule on the issue, the case has gone on.
Those charged could each be slapped with a €175,000 fine and face seven years in prison if convicted, reports the Guardian. While some have confessed to the changes, others, including the four auctioneers caught up in the scandal, deny their involvement.
Officially known as the Union des commissionnaires de l’Hôtel des ventes (UCHV), the insular group went by numerous nicknames including the cols rouges (after the color of their uniform collars) and the Savoyards (after the region of France from which they predominantly hail) until it was disbanded in 2010. Before then, the organization enjoyed a monopoly at Drouot, a privilege that can be traced back to Napoleon III, who awarded it in 1860.
Inside la Yape
As reported in the Independent, prosecutors have laid out the details of a complex scheme, which functioned partly thanks to the co-operative nature of the organization. Art handlers who were tasked with clearing the homes of wealthy, recently deceased individuals allegedly swiped valuable objects. If relatives complained, the objects miraculously reappeared. The prosecution alleges that pricey pieces also disappeared during the valuation of estates, while they were in storage awaiting auction, or en route to Drouot.
A group of complicit auctioneers later sold the works at auction, allege prosecutors, some even going so far as to request works of a particular style in order to fill out genre-specific sales (early 20th-century furniture, for example). Proceeds were then allegedly pocketed by the art handlers, some of whom owned extravagant cars, with one reportedly using ill-gotten funds to buy a bar—lifestyles well in excess of those afforded by the union’s peak salary of €60,000.
Reports from Le Parisien add another layer of complexity to the caper. The paper details an aspect of the scheme where art handlers would allegedly steal just a select part of an object in order to deflate its value at auction. After fetching a low price, the object would be restored with the original stolen piece and resold as a complete whole at a vastly higher value.
Before hitting the auction block, prosecutors say stolen objects could be hidden in the labyrinthian storeroom of Drouot or in one of the 125 shipping containers owned by the art handlers, who kept them in large warehouse on the outskirts of Paris.
How They Were Uncovered: A Timeline
All it took was one anonymous phone call to set off the chain of events that has resulted in nearly half of the 200-year-old organization facing criminal charges.
On February 16, 2009, police received a tip from an unnamed source who told them that his uncle’s Courbet oil painting—last known to be stored at Drouot—had gone missing. The tip came after the art handlers moved from stealing lower-value objects to more notable, expensive pieces. Police subsequently tapped an art handler’s phone, and a wider criminal investigation followed in May. Raids targeting the art handlers’ warehouse and the Drouot storeroom followed in December, leading to multiple arrests.
In February of 2010, Drouot—which denies any involvement in the pilfering scheme—terminated the de-facto monopoly of UCHV, allowing unaffiliated providers to work alongside the Savoyards. In December, Georges Delettrez, the president of Drouot, declared that all of the old art handlers had been replaced entirely.
According to The Art Newspaper, a lawyer for Drouot claimed, “The case causes injury to Drouot’s activity, which is based on its reputation.” Indeed, the scandal, which prompted a major reorganization of the auction house, comes at a difficult time financially for Drouot. Sales at the auction house decreased by 5.4% last year, compared to an increase of 28% at rival Christie’s Paris.
According to reports, one handler saw the thefts as “stealing from the dead,” a practice which he perceived as harmless and which some allege has been an open secret in the French art world for years.