It can generally be agreed, when all is said and done, that cars come from Germany, cigars come from Cuba and wine comes from France. You can probably add to France that she possesses the fairest, but slowest, legal system. Changes instigated in the 1790s, during and after the Revolution, made it a very democratic process. However, up until the year 2000, French auctioneering law was fairly archaic. It was in this year of reform that monopolistic French auction laws, regulated through the system of commissaires-priseurs since the eighteenth century, opened up Hôtel Drouot to international competition. Non-French auctioneers could not operate in France up until this time.

Hôtel Drouot, inaugurated in 1852, is a large government owned auction hall in Paris, known for its sales of fine art, antiques, and antiquities. Consisting of sixteen large rooms, it hosts over seventy independent Parisian auction firms, all of which must operate under the umbrella grouping of Drouot. Any auctions held in Paris, until the reforms, had to be held in this building. The system, if at times chaotic, worked reasonably well. Problems could arise when numerous auctions would start at the same time, making it all seem like rush hour at Heuston Station! But a must see if you’re ever in the City of Lights with time on your hands. They’ve organised it a little better now since the reforms but in the 1980s & 90s especially it was a madhouse, and very entertaining.

Paris required a fast clearing house to quickly sell on it’s apartment contents, high & low, and Drouot was the solution. But it had an even bigger problem, their “col rouges”. A problem that became monstrously bigger over a growth period of nearly two hundred years. This term “col rouges” refers to the collective of porters who assist the seventy different auctioneers inhabiting Hôtel Drouot to gather up and display the lots for sale. Their name derives from the red collars of their uniform. Over the years this group of workers became more and more authoritarian until eventually they were like a Teamsters Union of 1970s New York. Nothing could happen without them. Over-protected by government, they monopolised the transport and handling of valuables in Drouot. Membership of this group was tightly controlled by those already in it, and ‘membership’ was strictly limited to one hundred and ten members. Noticeably, quite a lot of the members began to be elected from the same Alpine region, Savoie. If all this wasn’t bad enough, they then began to loot the very apartments & houses they were sent out to collect goods from. Dreadful business. The problem became so endemic it couldn’t be ignored any longer. In 2009 French police raided their hide out, finding millions worth of stolen uncatalogued goods. Allegedly, on a continual basis, this constant incoming booty was divided out amongst the ‘crew’ and then sold by them through the very auctioneers they were fleecing!

Although its seven years ago since the raids, it now seems – finally – it’s all coming to court. Forty nine of the handlers going to trial, most having admitted the charges. According to the prosecution, this practice of theirs was known as ‘la yape’, which means theft in Savoie slang. The monies made by the members was such that one porter allegedly drove both a Porsche 911 and a BMW cabriolet. Another is thought to have bought a Paris bar. Audaciously, and only a Frenchman could exult this as a defence, the porters claim that they weren’t doing anything wrong as they were ‘stealing from the dead.’ I ask you.

Damien Matthews

 

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