Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Drouot death knell?

The great bell in the basilica of Sacre Coeur in Montmartre in Paris (left) is called La Savoyarde. In the light of the recent scandal besetting the Hôtel Drouot, the centre of Parisian auctions, it may be time to re-name that bell.

A few months ago, the French art world was plunged into crisis when numerous members of the so-called 'cols rouges' ('red collars', after their red-collared uniforms) — the Drouot's 150 year-old unionised family of auction porters historically drawn exclusively from the Savoie region of France — were accused of what amounts to organised crime.

Now the French economics newspaper Les Echos reports that an auctioneer and other officials connected with the Drouot have been remanded in custody this week pending investigations. In a new book on the scandal, French journalist Michel Deléan has described the Savoyard cols rouges operation as "a Mafia-type organisation."

One or two seasoned French art world insiders I spoke to recently told me that everyone has been aware of the problem "for years", but that nobody was willing or able to blow the whistle. Around 6,000 people visit the Drouot every day, with some 800,000 items changing hands each year, and yet only three official complaints of theft have been made against the Drouot in the past ten years. One can see why the privilege to work at the Drouot was handed down from father to son in Savoie families, occasionally changing hands between families for up to €50,000.

If, as seems likely, auctioneers and other Drouot officials have consistently turned a blind eye to the diverse criminal activities alleged to have been conducted by the Savoyard cols rouges, the crisis could yet deepen. What effect that might have on a French art market already critically weakened by the scandal and still constrained by sclerotic regulations remains to be seen.

A visit to the Drouot last week confirmed the extent to which it had lost what small lustre it once had. Wandering through the salerooms prior to the auctions, almost every room had the whiff of a down-at-heel provincial flea market. The porters from the Chenue logistics company appointed to replace the cols rouges stood glumly by.  Their simple, logo-stamped T-shirts may lack the old world iconicity of the red-collared Savoyard attire, but doubtless most auctiongoers would be happy to swap compromised pomp for plain propriety.
The slightly seedy quality of the lots on sale at the Drouot has long been part of its appeal. It has always been a place where an educated eye can spot unrecognised treasures. But with the exception of a pair of reasonable Boulle bookcases that stuck out like sore thumbs, the quality of the material on offer last week was distinctly unthrilling.

As if all this were not enough, the Paris branch of the venerable Wildenstein dealership dynasty has also been embroiled in allegations of "theft and concealment" after being found in possession of objects said to have been illicitly appropriated from their rightful owners by the Nazis. One of the families affected is the Reinachs. Alexandre Bronstein, a descendant of Joseph Reinach, whose collection was looted by the Nazis, claims that several pieces in the Wildensteins' possession belong to his family's estate, of which Daniel Wildenstein was executor.

This is particularly poignant. Just across town from the Hôtel Drouot on the Parc Monceau, stands the Musée Nissim de Camondo (left), the former family residence of the banker Moïse de Camondo. Moïse left his home and its fabulous contents to the French state as a memorial to his son Nissim, killed in action while flying for the French air force in the First World War.

Moïse's daughter Béatrice survived her brother and her father, eventually marrying the composer Léon Reinach, Theodore's son. A plaque on the wall of the Musée de Camondo testifies to the fate of Béatrice, her husband and her two children:

"Mme. Léon Reinach, born Béatrice de Camondo, her children, Fanny and Bertrand, the last descendants of the founder, and M. Léon Reinach, deported by the Germans in 1943-44, died at Auschwitz."