Paris auction workers jailed over theft scam

People attend an auction at Hotel Drouot in Paris (filed picture) Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hotel Drouot is France's most prestigious auction house

A French court has jailed 35 porters at the country's leading auction house for stealing thousands of valuable items over many years.

Three auctioneers at Hotel Drouot also received suspended jail sentences in the case, which has shocked France's art world.

The porters, who handle items before auction, were found guilty of removing many of them and selling them on their own account much later.

They saw this as a perk of the job.

The thefts happened mainly while the porters were clearing out the homes of dead people, and transporting objects that were to be sold by Hotel Drouot.

The practice was only discovered after a tip-off when one porter was found with a missing painting by the 19th-Century French artist Gustave Courbet.

In the searches that followed, thousands of items were discovered, including jewels, artworks by great masters and Ming dynasty ceramics.

One lawyer told the court that everyone knew what was going on but no-one wanted to speak out.

'Stealing from the dead'

The lavish lifestyles of some of the porters had been a source of suspicion, with one apparently driving a Porsche 911, AFP news agency reports.

During the trial, the defence described the practice as "salvaging", and argued that the porters did not know the objects were valuable.

Some of the porters said they had only been "stealing from the dead".

Hotel Drouot had denied any knowledge of the practice and supported the prosecution.

The 35 porters were sentenced to up to three years in jail, with half the term suspended. Some auctioneers knew about the theft and took a cut.

The auction house's porters union was established as a monopoly at Hotel Drouot in 1860.

Its 110 members wore black tunics with a red collar - hence their nickname "les cols rouges", the BBC's Hugh Schofield in Paris reports.

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