ART MARKET / The arts and graft of politics: France is gripped by the battle between a charismatic politician, his bank and the Treasury. An art collection is the prize. Geraldine Norman reports

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The Independent Culture
A COURT hearing in Paris next Wednesday will settle the future of a sensational art collection. The furnishings, objets d'art and pictures with which the businessman and politician Bernard Tapie surrounded himself in one of the grandest 18th- century private homes in the capital could, as a result, be subject to a forced sale within weeks on behalf of his creditors.

The Tapie collection, whose precise content is still largely unknown, has become the focus of an extraordinary roman policier which is being played out in the glare of the French media - with the public waiting breathlessly for the next twist. We know that the leading Paris expert on French furniture, Jean- Pierre Dillee, has valued the collection at between pounds 35m and pounds 50m. We also know that Sotheby's and Christie's were called in last August to make independent valuations, which came out between pounds 3m and pounds 5m. How is such a discrepancy possible?

Tapie, 51, is one of the most controversial figures in French politics. He currently owes the state-owned Credit Lyonnais bank pounds 150m and the tax authorities another million or so. He has been the subject of investigations by five separate examining magistrates (who in France oversee the police inquiries and decide if cases are to be brought), on charges ranging from bribing a football team to false accounting.

He was born in a poor suburb of Paris, the son of a plumber. His early ventures included selling second- hand cars, running a discount store and singing in night clubs. In the late Seventies he began voraciously buying up ailing companies and became a noted asset stripper. In 1990 he bought the famous German sportswear company, Adidas, which he sold last year at a pounds 60m profit.

But his widespread fame is based on his purchase of the Marseilles football club, Olympique Marseille, in 1986. He poured millions of francs into upgrading the team and when it won the European Cup in March 1993, Tapie briefly became a national hero. He was then accused of bribing the rival Valencienne football team to throw away an earlier match; the European Cup organisers cancelled Marseilles' victory and relegated the team to the second division.

The popularity of his football team helped Tapie get into parliament; he stood for a Marseilles constituency in 1989 and won. Gaining the friendship and support of President Mitterrand, he was briefly Minister for Cities in the 1992 Socialist government. Last year he took over a small left-wing party, Mouvement des Radicaux de Gauche (MRG), with Mitterrand's encouragement. In the European elections in May it won an astonishing 12 per cent of the vote, earning Tapie a seat in the European parliament as well as in the National Assembly. His stated ambition is to be elected mayor of Marseilles next year.

In theory, these political honours guarantee him immunity from prosecution in the French courts. On 28 June, however, the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly - by 465 to 10 - to lift his immunity in the case of a tax-fraud charge (one of the five charges against him being investigated).

The fraud squad removed him in handcuffs from his hotel particulier (private town mansion) at 6 o'clock the next morning.

The saga of his art collection has been running all year. On 13 March, Tapie signed a carefully negotiated agreement with the Credit Lyonnais on the restructuring of his pounds 150m debt; in effect, he was allowed five years to repay and the art collection was used as a guarantee. He undertook to see that Jean-Pierre Dillee supplied a valuation of the collection to the bank by 31 March and to ensure that the leading French auctioneer, Jacques Tajan, would send a letter saying that he agreed with Dillee's descriptions of the pieces and would be prepared to auction the collection on that basis.

Dillee told me last week that neither he nor Tajan had any knowledge of this deal before reading about it in the newspapers in May - so no such letters reached the Credit Lyonnais by 31 March. Dillee had first valued the collection in February 1993 and was asked to update the valuation in February 1994. He used 'replacement values', not auction prices, he says, assuming replacements would be found from the galleries of leading dealers.

'Since dealers buy from auction, their prices are normally about twice as high as auction prices,' he explained.

On 20 May, the bank opted for a restraining order, or saisie conservatoire, on the collection; the pieces were to be checked against an inventory but left physically in Tapie's home. Shortly afterwards, at 2.30 in the morning, Tapie removed some of them. However, the police were waiting, chased the removals van and recovered some, though not all, of the items. On 16 June, the Treasury imitated the bank, ordering a saisie conservatoire of the same pieces against Tapie's tax debt.

Eventually, on 28 July, the Credit Lyonnais moved in to transfer the entire collection to safe storage. It took more than a dozen massive removal vans to shift the contents of the house. Then on 2 August, Dillee was asked to check the items that had been seized against his inventory and provide a revised valuation. Estimating this time on the basis of auction prices, he reduced his valuation to around pounds 15m- pounds 20m and noted that some pounds 3m- pounds 4m worth of objects recorded in his original inventory had gone missing.

The missing items include some of the best known pieces in the collection: an ormolu eight-light candelabra by Caffieri which Sotheby's sold from the estate of the Duc de la Roche- Guyon in 1987 for pounds 220,000 (the French culture ministry classed it as a monument historique at the time of the sale to prevent its export from France); a landscape by Fragonard entitled L'Orage which Dillee valued at pounds 250,000; and a Chinese lacquer chest by Levasseur which he valued at between pounds 1.8m and pounds 2m.

Dillee tells me that there are some 160 items in the collection, roughly 80 sumptuous pieces of French 18th-century furniture, 50 objets d'art, and 30 pictures by Old Masters. He says that two-thirds of the collection by value was bought from auctions, mostly Sotheby's and Christie's, and a third from French dealers. Tapie had told him that his actual outlay on the collection was around pounds 16m.

Little detail has emerged about the furnishings except that they belong to the reigns of Louis XIV to Louis XVI and are very rich. Much play has been made in the press of the presence of two fake Chagalls and a fake Modigliani, but Dillee says that Tapie pointed them out to him as reproductions and they were never included in the inventory. Then there is the puzzle picture, a huge canvas of L'eau et Neptune, a still life of fish and shells which Dillee says would be worth pounds 10m- pounds 15m if it is by Rubens, pounds 3m if it is by Snyders and pounds 300,000 if by an unidentified contemporary of those artists. He advised Tapie to consult a picture specialist and did not include the painting in any of his valuations.

Immediately after Dillee had provided the Credit Lyonnais with his revised valuation on 2 August, the bank called in Sotheby's and Christie's and asked them to make separate and independent valuations. Both, according to the Credit Lyonnais, produced figures in the pounds 3m- pounds 5m range - roughly a tenth of Dillee's original valuation.

Dillee suggests that the 'Anglo- Saxons' may have been shown only part of the collection, but the Credit Lyonnais denies this. It has also been suggested in the French press that a large proportion of the furnishings described as '18th-century' are later copies or very heavily restored and that Dillee didn't notice. The presence of the fake Chagalls and Modigliani has given rise to the suspicion that there may be more fakes.

Sotheby's and Christie's are offering no hint of an explanation. Indeed, they are keeping very quiet about the affair. Sotheby's will not confirm that it has had any involvement while a Christie's spokesman told me that the company 'was legally unable to comment at all'. This may reflect the much abused French law that no party to a lawsuit may speak on the subject to anyone but the Tribunal.

It is Tapie, however, who is bringing the lawsuit that is to be heard next Wednesday. He claims that the five- year freezing of his debts which he negotiated with the Credit Lyonnais in March still applies and that they should return his assets. The bank claims that he has not honoured the conditions of that agreement and that the assets should be sold to pay his creditors. Either way, the collection is likely to be for sale soon - and thus finally on public view.

(Photographs omitted)