France investigates auction house staff for theft

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Police are investigating whether the close-knit staff association at France's premier auction house conspired to steal major artworks worth hundreds of thousands of euros, officials said Friday.

The union representing 110 commissioners at the Hotel Drouot auction house in Paris was placed under judicial investigation on July 21 for conspiracy, receiving stolen goods and organised theft, a judicial source said.

The commissioners, known as the "Red Collars" after their uniforms or as the "Savoyards" after the Alpine region where they are recruited, are an all-male clan-like organisation of stock managers and delivery crews.

They oversee their own recruitment -- each new member reportedly has to pay for a 50,000-euro bond which he can sell on to a successor when he retires -- and have no internal hierarchy, selecting daily tasks by casting lots.

Drouot is the most prestigious of the Parisian auction houses, selling millions of euros worth of art and antiques every year, and the commissioners had operated a closed shop in the store rooms since the 19th century.

In 1860, when Napoleon III added the former County of Savoy to his French Empire, he gave Savoyard migrants living in Paris a monopoly on art-handling.

Last December, around two dozen Red Collars were arrested on suspicion of a string of thefts over the years, and officers recovered diamonds, a painting by Gustave Courbet, a Marc Chagall lithograph and a Pablo Picasso sketch.

Since the scandal, Drouot has reduced the union's privileges, but they have continued to play a major role in the day-to-day running of the house.

Now, prosecutors have broadened the inquiry that focused on the accused individuals and named the group itself as a suspect entity in the inquiry.

As part of the inquiry, a judge has issued an order forbidding the group from continuing to work at the auction house handling and storing artworks, effectively putting an end to a 150-year-old tradition.

But some Red Collars plan to regroup and form a business to bid for the contract to continue to carry out deliveries for the house as a new group.

The auction house is currently closed for repairs, and Drouot spokesman Antoine Boulay said firms wanting contracts to carry out to work once done by the Savoyards would have until December to lodge their bids.

"They need to set up a firm before then and present guarantees of their professionalism and judicial records," said Boulay, adding that, while the Savoyards are welcome to make an offer, "the idea is to get new contractors."

© 2010 AFP

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