The trial in Paris involving many of the porters and auctioneers at the renowned Hotel Drouot auction house has ended with the jailing of 35 porters and three auctioneers. The defendants, who transported and stored objects destined for sale by Drouot, were found guilty of helping themselves to treasures including diamonds and a painting by Marc Chagall. They were sentenced to up to three years in jail, with 18 months suspended, and fined 60,000 euros ($67,000). Three auctioneers were also convicted in the scandal that shook the French art world, with the three receiving suspended sentences of up to 18 months plus fines of 25,000 euros.
The auction house had been riddled with scandal when valuable art, antiques and gems worth millions of euros went systematically. This was the charge on the opening day of a trial back in March, which has sent shudders down the corrupt spine of a barely regulated industry. Porters from Paris’ most famous auction house are accused of unlawfully taking 250 tonnes of consigned goods which included a painting by Marc Chagall and rare Ming dynasty porcelain. The trial continues until April 4.
Forty Porters known as “Col Rouge” (red collars) after their uniforms and six auctioneers from the Le Drouot are on trial for charges of gang-related theft, conspiracy to commit a crime or handling stolen goods. The case against the employees was launched in 2009 after an anonymous tip alerted investigators to a painting by Gustave Courbet that disappeared while being transported in 2003. Investigators allege institutionalised theft by the porters — known as “Les Savoyards” as all members of the secretive group came from the Alpine region of Savoie.
Police Raids have uncovered a treasure trove that went missing and has exposed the lavish lifestyle of the porters involved. One according to reports flaunted it by driving a Porsche 911 and the latest BMW cabriolet, while another purchased a Paris bar with the ill-gained goods. The porters pilfered items sent to the auction house after house clearances of wealthy people who had died. Most items were not on the inventory. Some items were apparently then sold at auction at Le Drouot.
“La yape” which means “theft” in Savoie slang — was endemic and profits were shared among the group. The “Col Rouge”, who wear black uniforms with red collars, have monopolised the transport and handling of valuables for the Hotel Drouot auction house since 1860. Membership of the union is tightly controlled and limited to 110. Each new member was apparently brought into the fold by an existing member, and according to some testimonies, the initiation process involved stealing something and sharing the proceeds with fellow insiders.