A closed society of Alpine villagers is at the centre of an art theft scandal which threatens the reputation of the world’s oldest auction house.
The uniformed, self-governing group of porters called “Les Savoyards” – recruited from a handful of villages in the French Alps – has monopolised all removal and ushering duties at the prestigious Drouot auction house in Paris for 150 years. Eight of them now stand accused of systematically pilfering objets ranging from antique furniture, to diamonds, to paintings by Gustave Courbet and Marc Chagall.
Up to one million objects pass through the hands of Drouot each year. Not all of them, it seems, ever fall under the gavel of an auctioneer.
French investigators believe that some – by no means all – of the corps of 110 self-regulating, uniformed Drouot porters have been systematically hiding away items from large estates left by art collectors or wealthy people. If someone complained, the missing item would mysteriously reappear. If the theft was not spotted by the heirs, the items were sold privately or auctioned at Drouot after a period of months or even years.