The world's greatest private stock of manuscripts, which includes around 130,000 items and several cultural treasures, is coming to market. Acquired over a dozen years by the scandal-hit Aristophil company, the precious pieces are due to be auctioned at Drouot as early as next September, under the guidance of the auctioneer Claude Aguttes.
Gérard Lhéritier, the founder of Aristophil, was charged with organised fraud in 2015. He is accused of setting up a Ponzi scheme by greatly inflating prices for the works he collected and adding big returns for investors. Attracted by the hope of 8% annual interest,18,000 clients bought shares in the 54 collections he assembled with contracts totalling around €850m. The investigation is ongoing, but Lhéritier has denied all the charges against him, claiming that he was merely speculating on an undervalued niche market. More than €100m of his assets were seized, forcing his company into bankruptcy.
The value of the stock is a matter of bitter controversy. Undoubtedly, the collections contain treasures, including André Breton’s Manifeste du surréalisme; the scroll on which the Marquis de Sade wrote his infamous Les 120 jours de Sodome in tiny characters whilst held in jail at the Bastille; an aria written by Mozart for the Nozze di Figaro; Louis XVI’s political testament before his beheading; love letters sent by Napoleon; calculations exchanged between Einstein and Michele Besso; early Medieval illuminated books; fragments of scrolls from the Dead Sea and original works by Charlotte Brontë, Balzac and Flaubert.
These, along with tens of thousands of letters and other collectibles, were placed under seal by the French judiciary and are now due to be returned to investors. Claude Aguttes has been chosen to manage the collections, safeguarding and insuring them before starting a complete inventory. He will then have to "coordinate the sales" proposed to the owners, with Drouot and fellow auctioneers. The whole process, which requires final approval by a court on 16 March, might take "at least six to ten years", explained the court-appointed liquidator, saying he is keen to avoid "a collapse of the market due to a brutal introduction" of so many items.