Sunday 18 March 2018

Paris auction staff 'ran crime ring to steal €2.2m of art'

Visitors browse in a room of the Drouot auction house in Paris
Visitors browse in a room of the Drouot auction house in Paris

Henry Samuel in Paris

FOUR auctioneers and dozens of porters from France's most famous auction house went on trial yesterday accused of stealing €2.2m worth of valuables and art, including works by Chagall and Matisse.

Around 50 workers from Hotel Drouot appeared in a Paris court on charges of gang-related theft, conspiracy to commit a crime or handling stolen goods. The art was intended to be sold at the oldest, largest and best known auction house in France. However, prosecutors say that a huge mountain of items were deliberately "lost" en route.

As well as an oil by Gustave Courbet, a sketch by Pablo Picasso and a gouache by Marc Chagall, the items include lithographs by Henri Matisse, a 2.08 carat diamond and costumes and jewels belonging to legendary mime artist Marcel Marceau.

Raids by investigators found 250 tonnes of valuable paintings, sculptures and objets d'art in the homes of porters, known as "red collars", and in warehouses.

The alleged thefts occurred between 2006 and 2009, and the total value of the items stolen came to around €2.2m, the court heard.

When collectors of art or other valuable objects contacted the auction house saying they had pieces to sell, the "red collars" would transport them.

With their black uniforms, with a red collar bearing their serial number, the porters were famous and earned up to €120,000 a year. The secretive, self-governing group, numbering 110, monopolised all removal duties at the prestigious Paris auction house for 150 years.

However, their reign ended in 2010, when several were accused of squirrelling away items from large estates left by wealthy people. Some items would miraculously reappear after complaints, but others were sold privately or auctioned at Drouot after a period of months or even years.

The prosecution has accused them of Mafia-style, "institutionalised theft" for decades.

The trial continues. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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