Auction house porters accused of carrying out more than their jobs

French police blame 'co-operative of crime' as dozens of missing items are found hidden in Paris warehouse

A closed society of Alpine villagers is at the centre of an art theft scandal which threatens the reputation of the world's oldest auction house.

The uniformed, self-governing group of porters called "Les Savoyards" – recruited from a handful of villages in the French Alps – has monopolised all removal and ushering duties at the prestigious Drouot auction house in Paris for 150 years. Eight of them now stand accused of systematically pilfering objets ranging from antique furniture, to diamonds, to paintings by Gustave Courbet and Marc Chagall.

Up to one million objects pass through the hands of Drouot each year. Not all of them, it seems, ever fall under the gavel of an auctioneer.

French investigators believe that some – by no means all – of the corps of 110 self-regulating, uniformed Drouot porters have been systematically hiding away items from large estates left by art collectors or wealthy people. If someone complained, the missing item would mysteriously reappear. If the theft was not spotted by the heirs, the items were sold privately or auctioned at Drouot after a period of months or even years.

Police and art dealers say that slow motion thefts of this kind have been widespread for decades but have traditionally involved relatively low-value items. A small group of Savoyards is now accused of extending the practice to far more valuable objects, including a small Courbet oil worth about €100,000 (£90,000), a Chagall gouache and a collection of diamonds.

Eight of them have been formally accused of "organised theft" and belonging to a "criminal gang". An auctioneer licensed to operate at Drouot is accused of receiving stolen goods but is not thought to have played a leading role in the operation.

Georges Delettrez, president of Drouot, (established 1852) has been attempting to minimise the affair. "It is not because we have eight black sheep that all the flock is sick," he said. "We are also victims. These disgraceful thefts have nothing to do with Drouot."

The pastoral metaphor is appropriate. Portering duties at Parisian auction houses have been monopolised by men from the high Alpine pastures of Savoie since the 1830s. Before the invention of skiing holidays, villages such as Tigne had to export part of their male population to the big city. The hold of Savoyards on the jobs at Drouot was officially recognised by the Emperor Napoleon III in 1860.

The auction house does not employ them directly but pays their organisation a percentage of its profits which is then shared out among the porters. Each of the 110 jobs is numbered and passed on within the same families or sometimes, more recently, sold to other Savoyards for up to €50,000.

With the growth of employment in the winter sports industry, the original porter-supplying villages, such as Tignes, have shared out the jobs with other villages in Savoie and Haute-Savoie. Each porter wears a black uniform, with a red collar carrying his official number.

The job of the Savoyards is to collect items for sale, store them and carry them into the auction room. Over the years, they have also acquired permission to buy and sell items on commission or in their own right. These rights have now been suspended.

The extent of the illicit trade is unclear. Police have been searching through 125 large containers used by the Savoyards at a warehouse on the eastern edges of Paris. Only 10 containers – belonging to the accused porters – have been emptied so far. They are said to have contained scores of objets d'art, pieces of furniture or ancient books whose origins the owners of the containers could not explain. Searches at the homes of the accused men have discovered a gouache painting by Marc Chagall and a set of diamonds.

Parisian art dealers say that the illicit activities of some Drouot porters have been an open secret for years. So long as the thefts remained modest, dealers were reluctant to complain because they were fearful of upsetting the porters. "If you complained, there would be reprisals, like objects broken in transit," one dealer told Le Figaro.

Another common practice, dealers said, was for porters to steal parts of an object in transit– such as the doors of an antique wardrobe – and then buy the "incomplete" article for a low price. Several months later, the antique would be re-assembled and sold on for a big profit."Until now, these were small, occasional thefts," one dealer said. "Not a Courbet or a Chagall."

Detectives are trying to work out just how widespread the thefts had become. "There was no gang leader," one investigator told Le Parisien. "This was a cooperative of crime."

From pastures to porters

*The "Savoyards" or "collets rouges" (red collars) have been part of the Drouot landscape for 150 years.

*The corps of 110 porters are recruited from high Alpine villages in the Savoie or Haute-Savoie.

*Their monopoly at Drouot was decreed by Napoleon III in 1860, while making Savoie part of France.

*Each Savoyard wears a black uniform with a red collar, bearing his serial number. While at work, the Savoyards are never known by their real names but by nicknames such as "Corbeau" or "Narcisse".

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