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French police widen net in manuscripts investigation

 20/03/2015

The scandal in France involving manuscripts’ dealer Gérard Lhéritier and his company Aristophil is growing daily. Earlier this month, he was charged with fraud, money laundering, creating false accounts and embezzlement. Bail was set at €2m. His accountant and his daughter were also indicted, as well as his main supplier, one of the most important Parisian booksellers, Jean-Claude Vrain. A prominent Sorbonne law teacher, Jean-Jacques Daigre, who was Aristophil’s legal council, was held by police but released without being charged.
 
Aristophil’s and Lhéritier’s accounts, containing more than €100m, have been seized by French magistrates, along with two mansions in Saint-Germain-des-Prés on Paris’s Left Bank that may be worth another €25m. Experts have started to inventory the company’s huge collection of around 135,000 documents, and two legal firms have begun registering complaints from the company’s 18,000 clients, in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria and central Europe. Aristophil’s sales arms have also been suspended. Police are now investigating others in the book selling business to determine if they provided certificates with inflated values.

Hundreds of investors bought shares in each of Aristophil’s historic manuscripts (see below for details on the collection). They say they were led to believe their investment would bring a profit of 40% or more over five years. According to state prosecutors, there was no way they could recoup their money. Investors were thus persuaded to sign a new contract with a new fund, or paid with fresh money brought in by newcomers, in what authorities describe as a Ponzi scheme. Lhéritier categorically denies this, saying he was following normal business practices, on the rise of an underestimated market.

Aristophil made more than €150m a year using this method. The alleged damage to investors ranges from €700m to €850m.

Aristophil was declared bankrupt on 16 February. The company’s administrator wants to put its collection under the hammer in the coming years, and he is already planning a major selling show of Napoleonic documents for this spring. But some experts fear that such a flood of documents into an already jittery niche market would lead to its collapse.

A historic collection

Lhéritier has amassed one of the world’s most important private manuscripts collections, containing documents, books, photographs, drawings and watercolours. It includes such treasures as fragments from the Dead Sea scrolls, Medieval illuminated manuscripts, the Marquis de Sade’s infamous The 120 days of Sodom written while he was a prisoner in the Bastille, Louis XVI’s address to the French public before his execution, Romain Gary’s novels and the two Surrealist manifestos written by André Breton, as well as thousands of documents signed by Balzac (including his journal, nicknamed le garde-manger), Baudelaire, Vigny, Flaubert, Apollinaire, Verlaine, Cocteau and the like. 

Some of his purchases were controversial, such as Sade’s manuscript, which was stolen in 1982 from Nathalie de Noailles, a descendant of the Marquis, smuggled into Switzerland by the publisher Jean Grouet, and then sold to the late erotica collector Gérard Nordmann. (A French court condemned Grouet for the theft and said the manuscript should be returned to Noailles' family, but a Swiss court later found that Nordmann bought the document in good faith.) Or General Charles de Gaulle’s notes, written while he was in exile in London in the 1940s, which a Paris court ordered to be seized as public property; the appeal is still pending.

Lhéritier was always ready to pay top prices, such as the €400,000 he spent on a love letter from Napoleon to Josephine at 2007 Christie’s sale of the late Albin Schram’s collection in London. Police are scrutinising his finances, to make sense of why he paid €435,000 at auction for a copy of Napoleon’s wedding contract in September 2014, when it was bought by a middleman for $45,000 at the Armory Show earlier that same year. He is also the suspected buyer of two copies of codicils of the emperor’s will, auctioned in 2013 for €350,000, but which were estimated at €1,500 nine years before by one of his own experts, according to a sales catalogue. And a set of 54 pages of correspondence between the physicist Albert Einstein and the Swiss mathematician Michele Besso, which Lhéritier bought for $559,500 at Christie’s New York in 2002, was valued at €12m to Aristophil’s investors, and later offered for resale at €24m.

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