PARIS—The Hôtel Drouot auction house was the center of scandal earlier this month, when French police raided Drouot, its warehouses and the homes of some of its employees, and detained and questioned a dozen people—including a prominent auctioneer, eight of Drouot’s commission agents and three of their family members—on suspicion of trafficking in stolen works of art. The sweep took place after police found an allegedly stolen painting by Gustave Courbet in the home of one of the commission agents.
As ARTnewsletter went to press, preliminary charges had been filed against nine Drouot employees—one auctioneer and eight warehouse workers—accusing them of organized theft of paintings and other objects.
In the first days after the sweep, the painting was reported to be La vague, a seascape valued at €900,000 ($1.3 million), which had allegedly been stolen in 2004, though the auction house did not report the theft until early this year. Within less than a week, however, the Nouvel Observateur magazine reported that the painting had been misidentified, and the stolen picture was actually another Courbet seascape, Paysage marin sous un ciel d’orage, valued at €100,000 ($140,000).
Police uncovered numerous additional items believed to have been stolen, including small jewels, watches and drawings, thought to have been taken mostly during inventories for estate sales or during moves. A number of police and officers from the Office central de lutte contre le trafic des biens culturels (OCBC), which investigates trafficking in art and cultural objects, searched Drouot’s showrooms in the ninth arrondissement, on the Right Bank, as well as employees’ homes and a storage area in the Paris suburbs.
The French daily newspapers Le Monde and Libération identified the auctioneer involved as Eric Caudron, and additional reports in those papers said that the theft ring had been in operation since 2001. No other details about how and where the Courbet painting was stolen have been released, and at this writing, the investigation was still ongoing. Stéphane Gauffeny, director of the OCBC, said the investigation had “barely begun.” Hôtel Drouot officials have not commented on the affair, other than to state that they are waiting for the results of the investigation and will take appropriate measures when they come in.