Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2017 Issue

The Aristophil Scandal: the epilogue

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The first “Aristophil sale” will take place this month in Paris, France, as an epilogue to the “biggest scandal in the history of autographs”.

  

The Aristophil case started in 1990, when Gérard Lhéritier, a former insurance salesman, decided to speculate on precious documents—he thus started to collect funds from investors in order to buy precious autographs and manuscripts, promising an unexpected 8% efficiency. He bought gorgeous materials, opened a small museum, Musée des Arts et des Lettres, and soon attracted attention. As a matter of fact, now for sale on court order, it leaves us speechless: “I’ve never seen such a rich collection,” Ariane Adeline, expert for the first sale to be held by Aguttes* on December 20, tells Le Parisien. “It goes from antiquity down to the 20th century.” Among these jewels is the manuscript roll of Sade’s 120 Journées de Sodome—bought for 7 million in 2014—, some authentic manuscripts of Victor Hugo, Balzac, Proust, André Breton (including Le Manifeste du surréalisme—800,000 to 1,000,000 euros), and President Kennedy. Listed in the collection is also the wedding contract of Napoléon 1st and a wonderful medieval manuscript of Quinte Curce’s Life of Alexander, richly illustrated (300 to 500,000 euros), as well as the journal of Candee Helen Churchill, who survived the wreck of the Titanic—her story inspired James Cameron for his movie (estimation: 400,000 euros). When the police seized the whole collection in 2015, it amounted to 130,000 documents. This part of the story was not a forgery: this is a very impressive collection—yet highly and deliberately overestimated.

 

Lhéritier’s business seemed suspicious from the start—especially to booksellers, who knew the market too well to conceive his making so much money. Yet, many worked with him. Could they be unaware of what was going on to the prejudice of some 18,000 investors? Though he fell through the cracks for a few years, Lhéritier is currently facing charges of “gang fraud” and “unfair commercial practice.” With his business partners, he was in fact probably** running a Ponzi scheme, paying the old subscribers’ dividends with the money of the recent ones. He also allegedly overestimated the documents he had bought with the money of his investors, so that he could “resell” them with a 150% profit to... his investors!

 

The auctioneer Claude Aguttes considers that the first “Aristophil sale”, to be held on December 20, at Drouot’s, should not cover “more than 10 or 15% of the price paid by the investors of Aristophil” (Le Monde). On the whole, the latter spent some 850 millions euros over this collection. Most of them were small savers, who didn’t know anything about manuscripts—and didn’t give a damn. One of them explains to Le Monde: “We were just in for the money. There was no way we would go to Paris to look at some old pieces of paper.” Others were apparently more aware of their contribution to the national heritage: “A broker (...) would visit my parents, driving his flashy Jaguar,” one Xavier, whose parents invested 1.8 million euros in Aristophil, tells Le Figaro, “and then would take them to the Musée des Arts et des Lettres. They felt like they belonged to an elite, who knew how to invest their money. To be the co-owners of Le Petit Prince also meant a lot to them. My mother kept a photograph of the manuscript.”

 

This story made a lot of noise because Aristophil was an international firm, with many ramifications; plus, Lhéritier is a “political” figure. For example, he gave millions of euros to the city of Nice, where he resides, and influential politicians like Rachida Dati or Christian Estrosi are his friends. In 1996, he was already suspected of being a crook—but the judge in charge was “dismissed” from the case, and Lhéritier cleared of all charges in 2005. In this particular case, the city of Monaco itself was even accused of complicity. Gérard Lhéritier is what we call a “big fish”.

 

To make the story even more novelistic, Charlie Hebdo revealed that Lhéritier and his relatives won 169 million euros at the Euromillions lottery in November 2012, reinvesting 35 in Aristophil. But that was not enough. The financial authorities eventually found out about the alleged scam and put an end to it. This was yet a nice story. Making big money with precious documents? A dream for some—almost a revenge for others. But the miracle was a fraud. “All right, but still—the museum attracted a lot of people from all over the world,” an enthusiastic bookseller tells us. “We must acknowledge it! It proves that, should the proper money be invested, it could work!” That’s how miracles work: people just want to believe in them.

 

This will not be a short epilogue. “The Aristophil Collections will be dispatched over the next six years,” the first catalogue reads. “We expect to hold 300 sales.” Furthermore, the estimated 12 to 16 million euros that the global sale is expected to generate might create other legal problems as some documents are co-owned by 2,000 various investors! To make things worst, the Ministry of Culture has just stated that the whole collection should not be dispatched but donated to the state—freely. Scammers everywhere!

 

Thibault Ehrengardt

 

** According to the French legal system, Gérard Lhériter is considered innocent until proven guilty.

 

*

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. SOLD for $131,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. SOLD for $516,500
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. SOLD for $106,250
    <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. SOLD for $16,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. SOLD for $275,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. SOLD for $118,750
  • <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> E.H. SHEPARD, Original drawing for A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner.<br>$40,000-60,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> BERNARD RATZER, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $80,000-100,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> THOMAS JEFFERSON, Autograph letter signed comparing Logan, Tecumseh, and Little Turtle to the Spartans. Monticello: 15 February 1821. $14,000-18,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN C. FREMONT, Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in the Year 1842.. Abridged edition, the only one containing the folding map From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $3,000-5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ZANE GREY, Album containing 94 large format photographs of Grey and party at Catalina Island, Arizona, and fishing in the Pacific. From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $5,000-$8,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> WILLIAM COMBE, A History of Madeira ... illustrative of the Costumes, Manners, and Occupations of the Inhabitants. produced by Ackermann in 1821; From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ERIC TAVERNER, Salmon Fishing... One of 275 copies signed by Taverner, published in 1931,From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN WHITEHEAD, Exploration of Mount Kina Balu, North Borneo. Whitehead reached the high point of Kinabalu in 1888. Part of a major group of travel books from the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN LONG, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, describing the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians... The first edition of 1791. $3,000-$5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> SAMUEL BECKETT, Stirrings Still. This, Beckett’s last work of fiction with original lithographs by Le Brocquy, limited to 200 copies signed by the author and the artist. From the Estate of Howard Kaminsky.. $1,500-$2,500
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, wallpaper sample book, circa 1919. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Archive from a late office of the Breuer & Smith architectural team, New York, 1960-70s. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> William Morris, <i>The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men,</i> illustrated by Walter Crane, Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, 1894. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustave Doré, <i>La Sainte Bible selon la Vulgate,</i> Tours, 1866. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustav Klimt & Max Eisler, <i>Eine Nachlese,</i> complete set, Vienna, 1931. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>Eric Allatini & Gerda Wegener, <i>Sur Talons Rouges,</i> with original watercolor by Wegener, Paris, 1929. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>C.P. Cavafy, <i>Fourteen Poems,</i> illustrated & signed by David Hockney, London, 1966. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jean Midolle, <i>Spécimen des Écritures Modernes...</i>, Strasbourg, 1834-35. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>E.A. Seguy, <i>Floréal: Dessins & Coloris Nouveaux,</i> Paris, 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.

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