Albert Einstein's notebook and Dead Sea Scrolls fragments among historic manuscripts struggling to find buyer

The value of the collection amassed by the Aristophil group has been estimated at hundreds of millions of euros

Nick Clark,John Lichfield
Tuesday 02 February 2016 23:10 GMT
Roll up, roll up: '120 Days of Sodom scroll' by Marquis de Sade is among the manuscripts for sale
Roll up, roll up: '120 Days of Sodom scroll' by Marquis de Sade is among the manuscripts for sale

Featuring fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, sheet music signed by Mozart and Albert Einstein’s notebook, it is certainly an eclectic collection.

But this treasure trove of more than 130,000 historic manuscripts – seized by the French courts from an investment firm now under investigation for fraud – appears to be struggling to find a buyer.

The value of the collection amassed by the Aristophil group has been estimated – by some – at hundreds of millions of euros, and the liquidators are determined that it should be sold together.

So anyone wanting an original of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species will also have to cough up for Louis XVI’s last letter to the French people before he was executed and Honoré de Balzac’s journals.

Initial approaches to specific potential buyers appear to have fallen flat, with a spokesman for the sale saying they had now “decided to widen the scope”.

The buyer has to present “serious guarantees regarding his ability for the custody, safekeeping, management, valorisation, sale or redemption of this outstanding collection,” according to the terms of the sale document.

The sellers are acutely aware that a flood of the documents could cause a collapse in prices in the niche market of historical documents. The spokesman said: “The pieces could not flow on to the market altogether at the same time.”

It is believed that close to 600 institutions and potential private investors have now been sounded out about a bid. Although the collection would enrich the home of any billionaire, it is hoped that a museum, foundation or gallery will come forward.

But it appears that interest has not been overwhelming. The original deadline for bids, ends on Wednesday but a French court hearing is expected to extend that date.

Sources in the art world suggest the collection may be overvalued, and that a top asking price of €100m might be more realistic.

“Yes, 5 per cent of the collection is extraordinary, but the remaining 95 per cent is insignificant,” one antiquarian bookseller told the Financial Times.

In August last year, the Commercial Court of Paris ordered the liquidation of the collection gathered by Aristophil between 2003 and 2015.

Gerard Lhéritier set up Aristophil in 1990 and it became dedicated to buying manuscripts and original historical documents from collectors and specialist libraries. Aristophil sold shares to 18,000 investors, on the promise of strong returns.

But in November 2014, close to 100 French anti-fraud officers raided Aristophil’s Paris headquarters and seized the money in the accounts. Mr Lhéritier has been “placed under formal investigation” for “dishonest commercial practices, fraud in an organised gang , money laundering, embezzlement and presenting falsified accounts”.

He denies the charges and calls the liquidation a “complete mess, set up by a small gang of civil servants”.

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