Drouot, the celebrated central-Paris auction house, is facing one of the biggest crises in its 158-year history: Eight of its commissionaires (agents responsible for the storage and transport of artworks ) have been charged with criminal association and organized theft, and auctioneer Eric Caudron has been arrested for collusion in the sale of stolen goods. According to a police source speaking at press time, further arrests are imminent, including those of several more auctioneers.
The first arrests came after police raids in December on Drouot, its warehouses and its employees’ homes. The raids were the culmination of a six-month investigation by France’s Office Central de lutte contre le trafic des Biens Culturels prompted by the disappearance during an estate inventory of a seascape attributed to Gustave Courbet worth an estimated €50,000 to €100,000 ($75,000-$145,000). The police impounded an unspecified quantity of drawings, paintings, watches and objets d’art from the house’s Paris facility and its suburban storage depot in Bagnolet. The Courbet was reportedly recovered at the home of one of the commissionaires.
The commissionaires, known as cols rouges because of their red-collared black uniforms, are an integral part of Drouot’s business. They are involved in every stage of the auction process, from attending inventories to packing, removing and storing works of art, to organizing presale exhibitions and presenting individual lots at each of the house’s 2,000 annual sales.
Technically, the cols rouges are not Drouot employees; the 70-plus auction firms that operate at the house pay the commissionaires on a sale-by-sale basis for providing transportation and warehousing services. The union is a closed shop, its membership fixed at 110, recruited exclusively from the Alpine region of Savoy and only through personal contacts (often family relationships).
Drouot’s commissionaires have had a dodgy reputation for decades. It is common knowledge, for instance, that bidders "tip" them to ensure preferential treatment. And they have been known to pilfer auction items they handle or alter them — by, say, drawing a crack on a vase or removing a door from a wardrobe — only to buy the "damaged" goods themselves at a bargain price and then put them up in original condition at a later Drouot sale, reportedly reaping hefty profits. Such tricks of the trade have earned the commissionaires tidy incomes. Indeed, investigators have been amazed to discover that some own hotels and restaurants and drive luxury cars.
Until now, auctioneers and Drouot habitués have turned a blind eye to these practices; when crossed or challenged, the commissionaires have been known to "accidentally" break or lose items. Journalists, as well, have been loath to expose the cols rouges activities for fear of losing Drouot advertising. Their most egregious dereliction of duty — a truck containing €2 million ($2.8 million) worth of auction goods was stolen in 1990 after commissionaires left it unlocked while taking a break at a nearby café — went almost unreported.
But the police’s highly publicized descent on Drouot has made such willful ignorance impossible. France’s state-appointed auction watchdog, the Conseil des Ventes, took the strongest measures at its disposal by suspending auctioneer Caudron and reminding Drouot that it was legally obligated to guarantee "secure" and "honorable" service to its clients. Even the auction house’s notoriously supine president, Georges Delettrez, felt compelled to comment. Just before leaving for a three-week vacation in Tahiti Delettrez said that he would take "strong measures with immediate effect," including banning commissionaires from buying and selling at Drouot or bidding on behalf of a third party. Upon his return in early February, he announced that Drouot’s operations manager Henri Luquet had been given full executive powers and that the firm had ended the commissionaires’ monopoly; instead it would employ three to five independent transport companies (if cleared of any wrongdoing, the commissionaires could be one such company). The scandal comes during a period of revival for the famous auction house. Shaken by losing its lock on Paris auction activity when Christie’s and Sotheby’s entered the market in 2001, Drouot bounced back last year, with a stabilized turnover and a string of successful sales and positive PR. Now many Drouot officials and auctioneers — and the commissionaires themselves — fear that the recent arrests will have a catastrophic impact on the firm’s reputation.
A criminal iceberg could lurk beneath Drouot’s surface respectability, potentially sending auction vendors to other venues. But competitors Sotheby’s and Christie’s are not jumping for joy. Guillaume Cerutti, head of Sotheby’s France, says the crisis has the potential to weaken the whole market: "A powerful French market needs a powerful Drouot functioning efficiently and honestly.