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A total of 40 members of the Union des Commissionnaires de l’Hôtel des Ventes (UCHV)  – better known as the Cols Rouges on account of their red-collared uniforms – are accused of the systematic theft of thousands of artworks they were tasked with moving from vendors’ homes.

Six Parisian auctioneers are also accused of aiding and abetting thefts between 2006 and 2009. According to the prosecutor, they turned a blind eye to the source of the objects offered to them and were also the beneficiaries of a system.

Addressing the Paris Criminal Court on March 31, attorney Laura Tobelem told the judges to ignore suggestions that the Cols Rouges were simply following long-standing tradition and enjoying accepted ‘perks of the job’ when they helped themselves to estate goods.

“They prided themselves as belonging to a world that had its codes, its own rules of dishonesty. They were operating in a bubble,” she said.

Brushing aside the argument that just a few bad apples sullied the reputation of the UCHV, Tobelem told the court: “You are not trying a few individuals for theft but a system based on greed. A system by which the objects are removed, transported, stored, sold.

“The decision to steal is collective, the mechanism affects everyone, regardless of age or experience. They learned and understood by watching others, and each received their share of the gains,” she said.

Tobelem questioned why it was necessary to acquire individual containers for its members in a warehouse in the eastern suburb of Bagnolet where thousands of objects, paintings and sculptures were found following dramatic raids six years ago.

“This decision is grotesque. The object of the UCHV is to transport objects, not store them,” said Tobelem.

Testimony from many of the defendants told of items that were “recovered” by the handlers during the emptying of apartments, kept in a storage facility near Paris and sold a few months later at Drouot.

The Cols Rouges repeatedly used the word “recovery” for the objects they took. While the term “theft” was used when the handlers spoke to police, many are now retracting their statements.

“That’s how it worked”

In one case the court heard that three handlers involved in clearing out an apartment in Reuil-Malmaison in July 2006 had taken two pieces of furniture by the Art Deco designer Eileen Gray not listed on an inventory.

They were later offered for sale with low estimates at Hôtel Drouot but were purchased for €500,000 and €485,000 by the Vallois gallery. The rest of the estate was sold for only €3400.

The team (who split the proceeds) said that they didn’t have full authorisation to take and sell the items – but “that’s how it worked”.

One handler concluded: “If the auctioneer said to me, ‘Take what is listed [on the inventory] and the rest goes to the store’, that’s what I can take.”

The trial, which began on March 14, was expected to last until early April.