Valuable art, antiques and gems worth millions of euros went systematically missing form the world renowned Hotel Drouot auction house in Paris. This was the charge on the opening day of a trial 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 have 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.
On the Drouot website the company claims, Drouot is one of the oldest institutions within the world of public auction house sales, proposes a unique model that brings together 74 auction houses and over 2000 professionals dedicated to auction sales. Open to all tastes and preferences, Drouot stands out for its large scale of 500,000 objects proposed each year, offering an incomparable access to the art world to 5,000 daily visitors, from grand collectors, to amateurs, to novices. With its inexhaustible reservoir of works, objets d’art and collectable items from all eras, styles and values, Drouot is a place of constant exchange with an ever-flowing stream of objects, thanks to the passion and dedication of its auctioneers.
My own personal experience of Le Drouot is that it is a most corruopt institution, rotten to the core. Everything that is not ringed by a tight select group of dealers is made impossible to purchase by auctioneers who refuse to take bids from outsiders. All items must be cleared in cash immediately following the sale.