France: Prestigious Paris Auction House Pillaged by Porters

French police have charged dozens of members of the staff of Hotel Drouot, a famous Paris auction house, for a long standing scheme that allegedly stole millions of Euros worth of artwork and other valuables from its clients, the Associated Press (AP) said.  nekakvazastavanemampojmaFlag of France (Photo: Wikipedia)At least four auctioneers and dozens of auction workers are accused of gang-related theft, conspiracy to commit a crime or handling stolen goods occurring over several years, the AP reported.   

The alleged scam was discovered after an anonymous tip claimed that a staff member had taken a painting by the 19th century French painter Gustave Courbet, the Guardian and other media write. Diamonds, antique furniture, Ming-dynasty porcelain as well as paintings and lithographs by Courbet, Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse were among the thousands of valuables allegedly stolen.

The almost 40 accused auction workers make up nearly half of the self-governing, self-employed corps of porters who work at the auction house. Known as “cols rouges”, they are recruited from Alpine villages in eastern France and adopt nicknames and serial numbers on their collars in lieu of real names, the Guardian reports. The porters have monopolized the transport and handling of valuables for the auction house since 1860. Membership is strictly limited to 110, AFP said.

The accused allegedly stole items during estate valuations of the recently deceased or while the items were being shipped to Drouot or held in storage. Some of the stolen items were sold at auction with the help of allegedly complicit auctioneers. One alleged tactic was to steal parts of an object, making it sell for a low price, then to reassemble it for later sale at a higher price, the Guardian and other media reported.

Profits from the scheme helped fund a lavish lifestyle for some. One worker allegedly used them to purchase a Paris bar, while another drove a Porsche 911 and a BMW, the AFP wrote. 

If convicted, each defendant faces up to seven years in prison and fines of €175,000 (US$ 195,000), the AP said.