A group of porters working for France’s most prestigious auction house were sentenced to prison for a string of art thefts on Tuesday (6 September).

In May 2009, a judicial inquiry was launched into the crime ring operated by members of the l’Union des commissionnaires de l’Hôtel des Ventes (UCHV), the former art handlers’ union of the Hôtel Drouot in Paris. This followed an anonymous tip-off that a member of the union was in possession of a missing oil painting by 19th century French artist Gustave Courbet called ‘Seascape with Orange Sky’. In the subsequent police search operation, thousands of valuable artworks and artefacts were uncovered including Ming dynasty Chinese ceramics, paintings by Chagall and Matisse, sculptures and even rare costumes belonging to French mime artist Marcel Marceau.

49 people were put on trial in March this year charged with organised theft, conspiracy to commit a crime and handling stolen goods. These included members of the UCHV as well as six Hôtel Drouot commissaires-priseurs (auctioneers). The court heard how the UCHV porters, also known as the ‘cols rouges’ after their red-collared uniforms, operated as a kind of secret criminal cooperative for several years stealing works during valuations of the estates of deceased collectors, en route to the Hôtel Drouot or from the storage sites where pieces were held while awaiting auction. This was considered a perk of the job and an act of “salvaging” or only “stealing from the dead”. According to Le Monde, one of the ‘cols rouges’ told police: “I cannot give you a single name of a commissioner who didn’t at one time or another steal in the exercise of his job … in fact, at the UCHV, theft was an institution. Everyone had a bite”.

After three weeks of testimony the Paris Criminal Court convicted 38 of the 49 defendants on trial. Those found guilty were sentenced to up to three years’ imprisonment and fined up to €60,000 (£50,400). Three auctioneers were given 18-month suspended sentences and fined €25,000 (£21,000) and the UCHV was dissolved and fined €220,000 (£185,000). Hôtel Drouot denied any knowledge of the practice and supported the convictions.