Art Handlers and Auctioneers Involved in Shocking Drouot Scam Get Jail Time

The French auction house fired the art handlers in 2010 and became a civil plaintiff in the trial.

The Drouot auction house in Paris. Courtesy Drouot.

Sentences have been handed out to 38 ex-workers from the Drouot auction house in Paris after a scam involving the theft of high priced art, jewels, and antiques from wealthy estates was exposed, shocking the French art world.

Yesterday, a Paris court gave 35 ex-art handlers sentences of up to three years with an 18-month suspended sentence and fines of €60,000 ($67,000), and three ex-auctioneers were given suspended sentences of up to 18 months and fined €25,000 ($140,486), AFP reports.

The scam was based around the selling of un-inventoried items from the estates of wealthy people whose past items were sent to Drouot for auction. An inquiry was launched in 2009, following an anonymous tip that a member of the art handlers union, l’Union des commissionnaires de l’Hôtel des Ventes (UCHV), was in possession of a stolen painting by Realist master Gustave Courbet, leading authorities to investigate both the auction house and the union.

Seven years later, charges were brought against 40 art handlers and auctioneers resulting in these 38 convictions and the dissolution of the UCVH, which was also fined €220,000 ($224,770).

French lawyer Leon Lef Forster, who defend nine Drouot workers at trial. Photo / AFP / THOMAS SAMSON /Getty

French lawyer Leon Lef Forster, who defended nine Drouot workers at trial. Photo AFP/THOMAS SAMSON/Getty.

The sentenced art handlers, part of a group known as “Les Savoyards” and hailing from the Alpine region of Savoie, had monopolized all the transport and handling of items for Drouot. They are also referred to as the “Cols Rouge,” due to a red trim on the collars of their black uniforms.

Membership of the clandestine group was purchased from an outgoing member, and any newcomer would have to commit a theft as initiation. The art handlers in question would steal items when emptying the homes of wealthy people who had died, taking items of value which had not been inventoried.

In one instance, two Art Deco items by Eileen Gray disappeared in July 2006, only to reappear on the auction block at Drouot three months later, where they collectively fetched €1 million ($1,123,850).

When the scam was busted earlier this year, investigators discovered a “mountain” of jewelry, art, and antiques. Items stolen by the Cols Rouge also include Seascape Under Stormy Sky by Courbet, a 2.08 carat diamond, and lithographs by Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall.

There had long been suspicion over the lavish lifestyles of some of the art handlers in question, who in some cases owned luxury cars, and one even purchased a bar in Paris with the profits of his misdeeds.

According to AFP, the estate of French mime artist Marcel Marceau was apparently affected, and his daughters were left with a tax bill of several million euros as a result. Marceau’s daughters were one of many parties who sought damages in the trial. None have been awarded as of yet.

Drouot, founded in 1852, dropped the art handlers in question in 2010 and became a civil plaintiff in the trial.

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