The trial of the Drouot art handlers popularly known as the “cols rouges” after the red collars of their uniforms got off to a slow start last week with two days of procedural questioning. But as the first defendants took the stand, a pattern of alleged thefts has emerged, and so has the relative impunity within the handlers’ union.
Three days of testimony from around a third of the 45 defendants produced similar stories: estates to be sold, often with the heirs not present; a large number of lots sold at auction without a the documentation of a catalogue; items that were “recovered” by the handlers during the emptying of apartments, kept in a storage facility near Paris and sold a few months later at Drouot.
The first cols rouges to be heard were three handlers involved in clearing out an apartment in Reuil-Malmaison in July 2006. The team set aside several items that were not on an inventory, including two pieces of furniture by the art deco designer Eileen Gray and a clock, before an office clerk arrived at the apartment. One handler said they “recovered” the objects because they were headed for the trash. The two pieced by Gray were stored for a short time in a facility in the eastern suburb of Bagnolet and put up at auction for only a few hundred euros, eventually purchased for €500,000 and €485,000 by the Vallois gallery. (The rest of the estate was sold for only €3,400.)
The involved parties split the proceeds. One, who deposited €360,000 in his account, told the judge: “It’s worse than the lottery, Madame, it brought me lots of problems.” Another testified: “€220,000 in a plastic bag before Christmas”. The team all explained that they didn’t have “authorisation” to take and sell the items—but “that’s how it worked”, as one explained.
The question of whether the handlers were legally allowed to take these items is tricky. One handler explained that heirs “allowed [them] to take things in the attic”. Another concluded: “If the auctioneer [who was in charge of an estate sale] said to me, ‘Take what is listed [on the inventory] and the rest goes to the storeroom,’ that’s what I can take.” In response to the prosecutor’s astonishment that objects were taken from the apartment of an antiques dealer while the heirs were present, another defendant said: “No heir told me ‘No, I want to keep that.’ They saw me, but did not stop me.”
Another pivotal issue is that the cols rouges have repeatedly used the word “recovery” rather than “theft” for the objects they took and sold—with the exception of one visibly uncomfortable and remorseful defendant. While the term theft was used extensively when the handlers spoke to police, many are now retracting their statements. One handler testified: “I was told that it was theft. The police told us, ‘You stole, you stole!’ After a while, you’re like a mouse at the bottom of a hole, you’re cornered and eventually say anything.”
Of the 250 tonnes of objects, paintings and sculptures found in storage in Bagnolet, the court will have to determine what was purchased in good standing, what was actually “recovered” from cleaners, and what was simply stolen.
Relative impunity, and management’s hands tied
Another major problem that has emerged through the trial is the culture of relative impunity at Drouot due to the strict regulations of the art handlers’ union. This came to light during the examination of the theft of an Empire period barometre that belonged to the Musée Marmottan, taken in 2004 and put up for auction in 2009 by a col rouge who found the piece in a storage container inherited from his predecessor. Five members of management testified in the case, including the former head of the union, René Revial, who said that the suspected party was given six months of unpaid leave—the harshest penalty possible under the union’ rules.
Sometimes, there was no punishment at all. “If the sanctioned [party] refused to carry out [the penalty], we could not stop them from working, as they were a partner,” Revial explained.
So why didn’t the union press charges against the art handler, the presiding judge asked Revial, rather than carry out an internal penalty? (Neither the buyer, nor the museum pressed charges.) “We reached a compromise,” Revial explained. “We didn’t want to sully the name of the [union] and bring it out into the public. We wanted to preserve the image of Drouot.”
The trial is expected to continue until 4 April.