Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2015 Issue

Operator of Massive Manuscript Business, Claimed Ponzi Scheme, Arrested

Aristophil website, since closed down.

The owner of an incredible manuscript business has been arrested in France, following the shuttering of his business earlier amid claims that it was a Pyramid (Ponzi) Scheme. The name “Madoff” has been bandied about frequently by the press in connection with the case. The business' operator, Gérard Lhéritier, has vehemently denied the charges.

 

Lhéritier's business, Aristophil, has amassed a manuscript collection almost beyond comprehension. It is claimed to contain around 135,000 manuscripts, housed in storage and in museums in France and Belgium (now closed). It included the will of King Louis XVI, written just before his unsuccessful attempt to flee Paris, André Breton's surrealist manifesto, a large collection of Charles de Gaulle's wartime telegraph drafts, Napoleon's marriage certificate, Albert Einstein's writings while working on the Theory of Relativity. Other names contained in this massive collection include Voltaire, Goethe, Descartes, Tolstoy, Zola, Verne, Mozart, Beethoven, Newton, Pasteur, Edison, Eiffel, seven more French kings besides Louis XVI, Gandhi, Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and many, many more. Recently, the firm had purchased the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, the manuscript written while he was imprisoned in the Bastille, for €7 million (pushing US $10 million at the time).

 

The issue was how Lhéritier was financing his purchases. He sold interests in pools of manuscripts to investors. With the use of their money, he would buy at auction, from dealers, or privately. The problem was compounded by his buying at high prices. Some appraisers believed he was way overpaying. However, in so doing, and buying so much, he drove the prices up. This created the appearance of sharply rising prices and values in the field, which reassured investors of the wisdom of their investments and encouraged newcomers to join the party.

 

It has been alleged that Lhéritier promised investors an annual return of at least 8% for a five-year investment. Lhéritier has denied this, and apparently it was not in writing, but at least some investors evidently believed the return was guaranteed. When an investor wanted out, their shares would be repurchased at a healthy gain, again encouraging others to invest. Of course, this is also a basic attribute of a Ponzi scheme.

 

Lhéritier opened Aristophil in 1990, but it was not until the beginning of the new century that the business began to grow into a manuscript behemoth. It then expanded from a few hundred to many thousands of investors and opened its manuscript museums. The current collection was estimated to be worth something in the €500-800 million range, which at the top end could be approaching almost $1 billion. However, this may be a largely inflated value, based on Lhéritier's purchases or estimates. It does appear that cash investments made in the business are in the $1 billion range.

 

In November, a large contingent of officers from France's anti-fraud squad raided the company's headquarters, along with offices in Brussels and Luxembourg, the Paris and Brussels museums, Lhéritier's home, his accountant, several investment advisors, and the office of a bookseller who sold Lhéritier many manuscripts. The business and its assets were all seized, forcing it to close down. Lhéritier objected that he was being forced into bankruptcy without a trial, but the anti-fraud investigators evidently felt the case was such that they needed to act decisively to protect the investors' interests. Aristophil's employees, around 65, were laid off. The firm's website was also shut down.

 

In early March, the long-delayed but inevitable other shoe dropped. Gérard Lhéritier was indicted on suspicion of fraud. His daughter, who managed the collections, and a couple of others were indicted too. The claim is essentially based on what investigators believe is a huge difference in the value of the firm's assets and its declared value. Not surprisingly, investors are upset, some having invested large portions of their savings with Aristophil. If it turns out the assets are worth just a fraction of their declared value, their losses will be substantial, for many life-changing. Even if estimates weren't grossly exaggerated (and the state believes they were), prices were driven up by Aristophil's buying. Selling this material without Lhéritier setting the market is likely to result in significantly reduced prices. Add to that trying to sell these manuscripts in volume and the nature of the mess becomes painfully obvious.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Sotheby’s, July 11: Galileo, Document annotated and signed by Galileo, dated Padua, 1595. £500,000 to £700,000.
  • Bonhams, July 15-25: THE AUTOGRAPH COLLECTION OF ISRAEL WITKOWER. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: GEORGE WASHINGTON SIGNED DISCHARGE. June 9, 1783. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: "Shhhhh!" A DAVID SHANNON ILLUSTRATION FROM DAVID GETS IN TROUBLE. $2,500 - $3,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: PICASSO, PABLO. Le Carmen des Carmen. Paris, 1964. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: RARE AUTOGRAPH OF AMERICAN NAVAL HERO CAPTAIN JAMES MUGFORD. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: KARA WALKER SILHOUETTES FOR TONI MORRISON'S FIVE POEMS. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FIRST APPEARANCE OF PINOCCHIO IN ENGLISH. COLLODI, CARLO.New York, 1892. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: BONAPARTE, JOSEPHINE. Autograph Note (unsigned) in French. $1,000 - $1,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FROST ON MATTHEW ARNOLD.Autograph Letter Signed to Adams, July 27, 1934. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: ELIAS BOUDINOT'S COPY OF BARLOW'S COLUMBIAN EPIC. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A SIGNED HART CRANE BROOKLYN BRIDGE POSTCARD TO EDWARD DAHLBERG. $600 - $800
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A STOCK CERTIFICATE SIGNED BY THE "QUEEN OF WALL STREET," HETTY GREEN. $700 - $900
  • Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: U.S. / European Shipping Archive 1800-1814. The Widow Bermingham & Sons Collection. €7,000 to €10,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Bunreacht na hÉireann. Constitution of Ireland. An important copy of the First Printing of De Valera’s new Constitution, approved in 1938. Signed by the Constitution Cabinet. €7,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: A Rare Complete Run of the Cuala Press Broadsides. €7,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Grose (Francis). The Antiquities of Ireland, 2vols. folio London (for S. Hooper) 1791. Magnificent Hand-Coloured Copy - Only 25 Copies. €3,000 to €5,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Cantillon (Richard). Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en General, Traduit de l'Anglois, Sm. 8vo London (Fletcher Gyles) 1756. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Gregory, (Lady Augusta). Spreading the News: The Rising of the Moon: The Poorhouse (with Douglas Hyde). Being Vol. IX of the Abbey Theatre Series. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Lavery (Lady Hazel). A moving series of three A.L.S. and a Telegram to Gen. Eoin O'Duffy, July-August 1927, expressing her grief at the death of Kevin O'Higgins. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Dampier (Wm.) Nouveau Voyage Autour du Monde, ou l'on descrit en particulier l'Isthme de l'Amerique…, 2 vols. in one, Amsterdam, 1698. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Howell (James). Instructions for Forreine Travel Shewing by what Cours, and in what Compasse of Time…, London, 1642. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Rowling (J.K.) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, 8vo, L. (Bloomsbury) 1999, First Edn., First Printing of Deluxe Collectors Edn. Signed. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: James (Wm.) A Full and Correct Account of the Military Occurrences of The Late War Between Great Britain and The United States of America. 2 vols. Lond. 1818. €650 to €900.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: The Laws of the United States, Published by Authority, 3 vols. Philadelphia (Richard Folwell) 1796. €600 to €800.

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