Several weeks ago a group of 45 Paris art handlers was arrested for stealing 250 tons of priceless antiques, jewels, and art pieces. The handlers were charged with gang-related theft, conspiracy to commit a crime or handling stolen goods. The trial for the theft that's popularly called the "cols rouges" (based on the red color of the handlers' uniforms) has begun with the testimonies by several defendants. While the prosecution claims that the 45 handlers are responsible for stealing tons of valuable artworks the defendants claim that they simply recovered the objects that were "heading for the trash".
Until now we heard testimonies of three defendants that described what happened in one apartment in Reuil-Malmaison in July 2006. The porters were sent to take several artworks that were heading for the auction but they also spotted and took two pieces of furniture by Eileen Gray, a famous art deco designer that were not on the list. These pieces were later sold for €500,000 and €485,000 by the Vallois gallery. To make thing more bizarre, the rest of the pieces from the estate were sold for a much lower sum of only €3,400.
The trial revealed a clear pattern of the thefts. The handlers got the instruction to take artworks from estates that were about to be sold. But instead only taking the artworks that were listed for an auction sale, the art porters took every piece that they could find and successfully sell. The successors of the estate often weren't present during these operations which meant that the handlers could move easily around the estates and take whatever they wanted. The handlers also claimed that in many cases they had some sort of a permission to take the artworks. While one of the porters said that the hairs of a certain estate gave him permission to "take things in the attic" another claimed that he was allowed to take the artworks since the successors saw him taking the pieces, but did nothing to stop him. Once removed, the artworks were kept in the storage near Paris and then sold several months later. The pieces were then sold at auctions, often for a much lower price than their real worth. Considering that the pieces were sold in Hotel Drouot auction house without the proper documentation led many to think that this acclaimed Parisian auction house is somehow involved in the thefts. However, Hôtel Drouot officials protest their innocence and claim that they are among the victims of the crime themselves since their sales plummeted once the arrests were made.
Thefts in the art world are not uncommon. Recently the special police art squad arrested 13 people involved in a massive heist that occurred in Verona. Few weeks after that five paintings by Francis Bacon were stolen from a villa in an otherwise peaceful center of Madrid. But the col rouge Paris art thefts are something different. If the accused manage to prove that they only took works that were meant to be thrown away in the first place they might avoid any punishment whatsoever. The history shows that handlers in this business were often granted relative impunity over similar cases. Back in 2009 for instance, one art handler tried to sell an art piece which he "discovered" at a storage container at an auction. Once he was caught, he was punished with only six months of unpaid leave. Although this might seem as a mild punishment this is actually the harshest penalty possible under the art handlers union rules. Many other similar cases were not sanctioned at all because neither the buyer nor the legal owner of the artworks pressed charges. It's up to the court now to decide whether over 250 tons of valuables were recovered or stolen.
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