French dignitaries stealing national furniture, art, porcelain & tapestries

The French kleptomania is present at the height of French power and the Elysée Palace is at the forefront. It is estimated that the French President’s office “has mislaid” over a thousand works of art entrusted to it. The marble bust of Nero disappeared from the Senate, a mahogany bergère – from the Assemblée nationale, a painting by Julian Dupré – from the Ministry of Justice. In total, 23,000 objects have been unaccounted for.

The story begins as in the series “Pan Samochodzik” (“Mister Automobile”). In August 2017, concerned restorers at the famous Palace of Versailles called the Office Central de Lutte contre le Trafic des Biens Culturels – OCBC (Central Office for the Fight against Trafficking in Cultural Goods). An 18th-century quadrille card table was put up for sale in a renowned antique shop, barely a few hundred metres from the palace. Curiously, this historic piece originated… from the Versailles collection, whence it had disappeared many years before.

A mysterious and delicate case, perfect for Mister Automobile, or, as a stand-in, the OCBC detective who came to visit the antiquarian. The inspectors of this small, just 30 strong, but very special French criminal policy department didn’t expect where this routine investigation would lead them.

The antiquarian had nothing to hide. He recounted in detail how one day he was visited by a solid, high-ranking retired state official who wanted to get rid of his collection because of a move. Nothing more usual: this is how an antique dealer replenishes his collection and thanks to such bargains he can offer his clients a wide range of antiques. The deal was made quickly. It turned out that the seller brought 18 pieces of valuable furniture, mostly 19th-century ones. Strangely enough, he didn’t haggle at all and accepted the antiquarian’s offer of € 3000 on the spot. A grotesque sum in a transaction of this kind.

The seller did not want to remain anonymous, nor did he hide his name: Hubert Astier. The antiquarian knew this name very well, because how could he not have known, even due to his profession, the media director of the state museum of the Palace of Versailles in the years 1995-2003?

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The art police were astonished to discover that the former director was probably selling off furniture from the palace’s collection, i.e. state property, which had only been lent to him to furnish his official apartment. It wasn’t just the green felt-covered gaming table that attracted the attention of palace conservators, but a total of 18 pieces of furniture, each of which bore the seal and signature of the state furniture collection.

Wandering soft power

For it is to be remembered that in France, a country with centralist and bureaucratic traditions, all state-owned furniture, fabrics, tapestries, tapestries, trinkets and porcelain are stored and managed by an institution specially established for this purpose called Mobilier National. This respectable entity, which is now part of the Ministry of Culture, has its roots in the Middle Ages.
In 1772, the “royal furniture collection” was placed in a specially built palace on the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The Hôtel du Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, today known as the Hôtel de la Marine, was arranged in 1777 so that the public could visit the collections every first Tuesday of the month, from Easter to All Saints’ Day. This was the beginning of a public museum of decorative arts in Paris. Photo by Moonik – Own work, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia
In that era, equipping castles with furniture and fabrics was a key issue for the royal court due to the way it operated. The King of France did not reside for years in the Louvre or in another favorite castle, but regularly traveled throughout the kingdom, and so did the entire court. Be it for a few days of hunting to the hunting lodge in Fontainebleau, be it for a few months of war with this or that neighbor to the fortresses of Chinon or Loches, be it a moment of rest on the Loire in the castles of Amoise or Blois...

Each time the court would drag carts full of furniture and fabrics. The butlers took out beds, stools, wardrobes and tables from trunks and chests so that the king and the courtiers could feel at home. Thick fabrics were hung on the walls, which not only embellished the stone walls, but also protected against the cold and drafts. After the royal stay, the whole of impedimenta was carefully rolled up and sent to the next residence, which became more and more numerous along with territorial conquests and the construction of new castles and palaces. In addition, you had to keep an eye on everything, count it to make sure nothing was missing, repair it, mend it and lengthen it when something broke, order new works from craftsmen, etc. Quite a big task!

The nomadic lifestyle of the court and the increasingly rich decorations, especially under the Renaissance ruler Francis I, forced the creation of a special institution responsible for furniture. In 1604, Henry IV created a royal administration called the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, or Garde-Meuble Royal. While the French garde-robe was polonised and became the native “garderoba”, the garde-meuble remained in its original form in many European languages. Let’s stick to the term “royal furniture collection”, as in the Łazienki Park in Warsaw.

Louis XIV saw great soft power potential in the prestigious royal furniture collection, fabrics, porcelain and works of art, glorifying not only the majesty of the Sun King, but also French know-how. Francis I had already used it in this way when hosting the English Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold or the Emperor Charles V at the Château de Chambord, but Louis XIV raised this use to the rank of state policy.

The steadfast centralizer Jean-Baptiste Colbert reorganized the Garde-Meuble for this purpose in 1663, designating its permanent headquarters in Paris, on what is now Place Concorde. Interestingly, the royal collection was like royal gardens: freely accessible to visitors. The Bourbons perfected the dazzling splendor of their allies, enemies and subjects. They also perfected the bureaucracy. In this way, registers of all furniture, tableware, fabrics, etc. were created. Descriptions of all the royal treasures were written in thick notebooks, with space in the margins for notes whenever an item “left the collection”, e.g. as a donation or was destroyed.

The institution was liquidated as a relic of despotism in May 1798, during the French Revolution, which devastated and stole the equipment and furniture of many palaces. However, the institution did not lie in the grave for long and was reborn in 1800 under the name Garde-Meuble of the Consuls, and then in 1804 as Mobilier Impérial. After a series of imperial-royal-republican-revolutionary upheavals in the 19th century, the institution was established during the Third Republic and continues under the name Mobilier National to this day. It is responsible for the safekeeping and conservation of the most valuable treasures of French history.
The bedroom of the manager of the royal furniture and furnishings of the residence from 1767-1784, Pierre-Élisabeth de Fontanieu (after renovation in 2016-2021), in a palace built to house this collection of the French Crown. It was he who opened the equipped rooms of the Hôtel du Garde-Meuble de la Couronne to the public. Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia
Its second, no less important, mission is the very cultural soft power. Today, Mobilier National is tasked with equipping the most prestigious state offices: the presidential Elysée Palace, the prime minister’s office, i.e. Matignon, individual ministries, prefectures, embassies, etc. – both on a daily basis and on the occasion of receptions and diplomatic receptions.

The cavernous cellars and storerooms of the Mobilier National house more than 130,000 objects such as tapestries, carpets, furniture, clocks, chandeliers, ceramics, antique fabrics, laces, etc. – dating from the 17th century to the present day. Another 100,000 decorative works and several hundred thousand pieces of porcelain from the Sèvres factory should be added to this. 75 thousand of them have cultural heritage value, including several thousand that are truly prestigious and priceless.

Disappearing National Furniture

The problem is that such an Alibaba cave, not only gathered in one place, but also scattered around the world, creates temptations. Many people, like director Hubert Astier, are tempted to take a bite out of something from the abundance. From time to time, similar cases come to light, at least the most emblematic ones, which end up in the courts and on the front pages of the newspapers.

In June 2012, the media reported the case of Françoise Debaisieux, former prefect of the Lozère department, who was sentenced to three years in prison (including one year without suspension) and fined € 40,000 for theft and misappropriation of public property. While in office in the Mende sub-prefecture between 2007 and 2009, she appropriated various items worth approximately € 20,000. According to the inventory, paintings, bedding, lamps, Louis XV-style armchairs, period chairs, tables, mirrors, wine, silver cutlery and candlesticks disappeared, but also trinkets of little value, saucepans and pots, and even a kitschy painting by the previous prefect’s wife. Later, the prefect returned some of them, replaced some of them, and some were found during a search in her apartment. In addition to the imposed penalties, the court banned her from holding public office for life.

The case from a few years ago was a bit more famous. Hugues Malecki, Secretary General for Regional Affairs in the Prefecture of Normandy and a high-ranking government official, was arrested and brought before the investigating judge in Le Puy-en-Velay. Why in Auvergne, at the other end of France? Because he was accused of appropriating at least one painting during the period when he held a position in the Brioude sub-prefecture in 2006-2007.

In a sense, the sticky-fingered official saved from oblivion a 1940 painting by the Russian naturalist Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) entitled “Dahlias” because he found it in the prefecture’s attic. As an amateur painter, he made a crude copy of different sizes, hung it on the wall, and took the masterpiece home. If it hadn’t been for the fact that a few years later he was approached by a museum preparing an exhibition, the substitution would probably have gone unnoticed. While searching for the missing painting, it was discovered that in 2012 it had been sold in London at Sotheby’s auction house for £ 103,250. The collector who put the painting up for auction bought it a few years earlier from Hugues Malecki for € 12,000.

The court in Le Puy-en-Velay sentenced the amateur painter to two years’ imprisonment and a five-year ban on holding public office. “Your actions as a high-ranking civil servant have undermined the authority of the state”, the judge fumed.

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However, it is not only provincial officials who benefit from the wealth of the poorly guarded Sesame. In 2006, five tapestries measuring two by six meters disappeared from the French embassy in Conakry, the capital of Guinea. This is not something that can be lost or carried away in a suitcase. The Foreign Ministry, responsible for all works of art present in the French embassies, consulates and other diplomatic missions abroad, filed a total of 123 complaints concerning the theft or disappearance of works deposited in these establishments.

The situation is similar in Parisian ministries. The round table by the famous contemporary designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte, which was deposited in the Hôtel Matignon, the prime minister’s residence, was never recovered. In 2014, a gilded sculpture of Venus and Cupid in the style of the 19th-century sculptor Clodion went missing from the Hôtel de Castries, where the Ministry of Construction was then located. In turn, a painting by Julian Dupré was stolen from... the Ministry of Justice, the mainstay of the republican order.

No one knows what happened to Boulle’s clock from the palace at Maisons-Laffitte, Dufy’s drawing in the Cantini museum in Marseille or Miró’s painting in the French embassy in Washington. In addition, there is a marble bust of Nero that disappeared from the Senate, a two-meter long and wide acacia bed from the palace in Versailles, a mahogany bergère from the Assemblée nationale... The list could go on forever, but in total it is impossible to find 23,000 items.

The French kleptomania is present at the height of French power and the Elysée Palace is at the forefront. It is estimated that the French President’s office “has mislaid” over a thousand works of art entrusted to it. Some have fallen victim to clutter, such as a chandelier that disappeared from the inventory for 25 years, but was recently found in another room because it had simply been hanging there for a quarter of a century without anyone noticing. A similar story took place at the regional museum of fine arts in Menton, where a conservator found a lost canvas by the Czech impressionist Otakar Kubin under a pile of junk in the attic.

However, hundreds of works fell victim not to administrative chaos, but to outright theft. Some officials believed that when they left their jobs, they could take something as a souvenir. In June 2019, a complaint was filed in Paris regarding the theft of seven works of art from the Élysée Palace, which was not the residence of the French president. Wooden and terracotta statuettes, as well as a bronze bust, each worth several thousand euros, deposited between 1879 and 1984, disappeared. The disappearance of these works was revealed by an inspection of the palace that took place between November 2012 and January 2013.

Disbelief in the good nature of the official

Paradoxically, the institution of the inventory and its accompanying inspection, which is crucial for the state furniture collection, is old and traditional, and at the same time very new. Since the founding of the Mobilier National, the administration has periodically prepared an inventory of the treasures entrusted to it. The first known inventory was carried out by Gédéon Berbier du Mets, appointed head of the Garde-Meuble Royal by Colbert in 1663. It lasted a decade, ending in 1673 with the publication of the register in 18 thick volumes, detailing the contents of the royal collection.
In 1924, the resources of the Mobilier National were used to equip the Versailles hall for the election of the President of the Republic. Photo by G. Garitan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia
Later, however, when these treasures were in the hands of the Republic, the inventory no longer seemed to be a priority. It was carried out in 1894 and then abandoned for over a hundred years. Along the way there were two world wars, dozens of changes of government, thousands of new ministers, and tens of thousands of prefects and ambassadors, each with a cohort of associates and officials.

During this period, only the Cour des Comptes, i.e. the French Supreme Audit Office, seemed to be interested in the fate of the national treasury and from time to time requested a more detailed inventory of all the furniture and works of art owned and deposited. Its public report from 1996 received wide media coverage and prompted the then PM Alain Juppé to set up a special commission (CRDOA) to oversee the inventory. It began its in earnest and since then it has been periodically reporting numerous irregularities to the competent authorities and filing complaints in the event of suspected theft.

The general inventory began in 2007 and revealed what everyone in the state administration feared, namely the gigantic scale of losses. Little, perhaps a few percent, of Colbert’s registers have survived from the ancien régime period. From the total state collections, already during the times of the Republic, approximately 15% of the stock disappeared irretrievably, of which perhaps 5% can be explained by destruction in wars, fires, removals and random accidents, and only 1% can be attributed to theft, as Jean-Pierre Bady, the first head of the CRDOA commission, translates with optimistic faith in the good nature of government officials.

However, when we look at the statistics, the figured seem to contradict this optimism. 73% of borrowed items cannot be found in central state institutions, such as the Elysée Palace, the National Assembly, the Senate, the Economic and Social Council, the Constitutional Council, the Council of State, the Court of Audit or the Court of Cassation. The situation is similar in ministries (62%) and foreign missions (55%), and slightly better in provinces, e.g. in prefectures (17%).

The numbers seem incredibly high, which is partly explained by the fact that pieces are counted, so a two-meter-high marble sculpture stolen from the Senate is counted the same as a broken cup from the Sèvres porcelain factory. It is well known that tableware and filigree trinkets are fragile and brittle, and they also deteriorate over time. For this reason, separate statistics are kept for porcelain, and with the exclusion of items from the Sèvres factory, “disappearance” drops from 73% to 10% in large institutions and from 62% to 26% in ministries.

Works of art do not disappear equally everywhere. They disappear mysteriously in great proportions in the Ministry of Agriculture (43%), the Foreign Ministry (40%) and the Ministry of Social Affairs (38%). In turn, the Elysée Palace lost “only” 12% of the borrowed items, although this “only” still means approximately 700 items. On the podium is the respectable Constitutional Council, which has “lost” only two of the 185 items entrusted to it.

There is no doubt that the new commission and its successive heads have a sense of mission: they inventory, search, draw up protocols, cooperate with specialized police departments... Jean-Pierre Bady boasted of the fact that he personally found 900 missing works of art. Sometimes they can be found in the attic or another office, but there have already been cases where furniture or porcelain bearing the Mobilier Natonal stamp have been found in antique shops and even on the website Le Bon Coin, the French OLX. From time to time, objects missing from embassies in Eastern Europe mysteriously end up on the Vienna Naschmarkt. Since 2014, there is even a special database, available to the public, containing approximately 22,800 items sought.

The commission has 2,300 complaints filed and another 900 waiting in the queue. 87 of them concern the president’s residence, and 60 – the prime minister’s. However, complaints are a last resort and are only filed if there is full documentation of the artwork, including a description, recent location, and preferably a photo. Sometimes it is simply not worth bothering the police, because the damage is negligible and the value of individual items is relatively low.

But only these 2,300 complaints, which concern a small percentage of missing works of art, mean work for the entire army of Misters Automobile for many years.

What were the consequences for Hubert Astier, the director of the Château de Versailles, who found himself in possession of valuable furniture because he simply refused to open the door to the officials when they came to give him the acceptance protocol to sign? In theory, for misappropriating property from the Mobilier National and selling it to an antique dealer, he could have faced up to five years in prison and a € 375,000 fine. He got off with a reprimand.

– Adam Gwiazda

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: Hôtel du Garde-Meuble de la Couronne. The large study of Thierry de Ville-d’Avray, the last administrator of the “royal furniture and furnishings” (1784-1792). From the very beginning of his administration, he drew up regulations on commissions, rental of furniture and management of the institution. Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia
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