The Independent follows up the Drouot theft case with a more detailed story on the Savoyard porters at the Parisian auction house and how they’ve operated for generations:
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.
Police and art dealers say that slow motion thefts of this kind have been widespread for decades but have traditionally involved relatively low-value items. A small group of Savoyards is now accused of extending the practice to far more valuable objects, including a small Courbet oil worth about €100,000 (£90,000), a Chagall gouache and a collection of diamonds.[…]
The job of the Savoyards is to collect items for sale, store them and carry them into the auction room. Over the years, they have also acquired permission to buy and sell items on commission or in their own right. These rights have now been suspended.
The extent of the illicit trade is unclear. Police have been searching through 125 large containers used by the Savoyards at a warehouse on the eastern edges of Paris. Only 10 containers – belonging to the accused porters – have been emptied so far. They are said to have contained scores of objets d’art, pieces of furniture or ancient books whose origins the owners of the containers could not explain. Searches at the homes of the accused men have discovered a gouache painting by Marc Chagall and a set of diamonds.
Parisian art dealers say that the illicit activities of some Drouot porters have been an open secret for years. So long as the thefts remained modest, dealers were reluctant to complain because they were fearful of upsetting the porters. “If you complained, there would be reprisals, like objects broken in transit,” one dealer told Le Figaro.