Faced with the biggest crisis in its history, the Hôtel Drouot, the central Paris auction venue, has announced sweeping changes to how it is run.

The Hôtel Drouot, the central Paris auction venue.

The Union des Commissionnaires, better known as the Cols Rouges, have lost their monopoly on transport and warehousing and, for the first time in its 158-year history, Drouot will have a paid chief executive.

The measures were announced on February 3, over two months after the police swoop that led to the arrest of eight Cols Rouges on charges of criminal association and organised theft, along with auctioneer Eric Caudron for collusion in the sale of stolen goods. More arrests are expected.

As soon as practical - perhaps from next month - Drouot will employ 'several' approved independent transport/warehousing companies.

The Cols Rouges, recruited exclusively from the Alpine region of Savoie, and whose numbers have been fixed at 110 since 1920, could be one of these companies, but only if they are exonerated from corporate (as opposed to individual) guilt in the current police inquiry, and if they alter their internal statutes to change from being a co-operative structure to an organisation with a management hierarchy.

Drouot's current salaried operations manager Henri Luquet, hitherto subordinate to Drouot's elected/unpaid President, Georges Delettrez, will be given full executive powers, effectively becoming CEO, supported by an elected management board composed of commissaires-priseurs (auctioneers). Monsieur Luquet has no background as an auctioneer.

Delettrez said the measures had been accepted unanimously by the 73 firms that sell at Drouot, and followed "profound reflection" prompted by the "exceptional gravity" of the situation. He called Drouot the "principal victim" of "unprecedented and unforeseeable events" that had "surprised and deeply shocked" the members of its management board.

The Drouot has also promised to beef up checks on access to the building and increase video surveillance inside and out "as soon as possible". All auctions will henceforth be transmitted live on drouot.fr.

The new steps followed "provisional emergency measures" taken in late December, banning commissionnaires from commercial activity at Drouot.

Meanwhile Drouot has reiterated its request to be "partie civile" (civil plaintiff) in the ongoing police inquiry, so as to have access to the evidence.

The investigating magistrate has so far denied the request.

Georges Delettrez, whose handling of the crisis has been flayed in the French media, remains as Drouot President for the time being.

By Simon Hewitt